Museum's new direction rankles some, excites others
Published: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 8:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 8:53 a.m.
Major changes at the Petaluma Museum over the past few years have been ruffling a few feathers around the former egg capital of the world.
One issue that's stirred up major controversy is the museum board's recent announcement that it was going to hold an auction in December. The Sonoma County Museum holds a similar event each spring as a fund-raiser where items not significant to county history are auctioned off. The suggestion, though, hit a nerve with many, and the museum board has since said they have scrapped the idea.
“For right now, we've decided not to do the auction,” said Joe Noriel, president of the museum. “Many people have expressed concerns about it, so we've backed down.”
The worry expressed by some over the idea is that Petaluma artifacts were to be sold to raise funds for the museum.
“That's absolutely ridiculous,” said Skip Sommer, museum board member and part of the committee that cares for the museum's permanent displays.
Sommer said that lots of estates over the years have willed items to the museum that have no connection with Petaluma or Sonoma County. These items are clogging up storage space. According to Noriel, the museum's two storage areas are filled to capacity, and a third it had to rent is nearly filled.
“I don't think people realize that we're like Goodwill in that every other day someone is coming to our door to drop something off, be it old books, a radiator or whatever they don't want,” said Noriel.
Former museum president Susan Villa, however, is skeptical.
“I think they are blowing smoke,” said Villa, who served as vice president for two terms, and then president from 2002 to 2008. “On page eight of this month's museum newsletter, they mention that the upstairs exhibit is getting a new look and that a few artifacts are up for either sale or storage. They are looking to get rid of the Pepper Kindergarten carousel, a carriage in the ranch exhibit, the organ in the school room and a large dollhouse. You can go through the money, but once you start selling the artifacts, I draw the line.”
Villa said that three guns from the museum collection have already been sold, and possibly in a questionable manner. Noriel contends that just two guns were sold and that the items had no connection with Petaluma history and were sold legally.
“The pistols, which are not that old, had no Petaluma heritage or significance,” said Noriel. “The museum board felt that the pistols, which were working, weren't appropriate to have and felt they were dangerous. We're a history museum, not a gun shop, and there was no Petaluma history connected to them. So, we took them to a licensed gun dealer who purchased them.”
Sommer and Noriel emphasize that they are not selling off the Petaluma collection of artifacts.
Even though the announced auction has been canceled, the board still wants to make room to freshen up the Petaluma exhibits.
“We want to make room to do displays on things like G.P. McNear's contributions to Petaluma,” said Sommer. “There's also the Denman family and the Wickersham family things that have not been adequately displayed. Our storage is overflowing with things that have no bearing on Petaluma that need weeding out. It's misinformed to say we're selling off the collection. Nobody is trying to hide anything or dispose of anything important to Petaluma.”
Bill Chayes, a Petaluma resident and Bay Area museum exhibition designer and curator for 30 years, is a consultant for the Petaluma Museum. He said that currently a great deal of research is going on to create a new upstairs exhibit of Petaluma history on a timeline.
“It will feature Petaluma history since the 1850s and going back even further to the Native Americans,” said Chayes.
Chayes is one of many who said that the museum has become more relevant to Petaluma residents in recent years than it has before, thanks to Noriel's vision and the introduction of major exhibits, such as last year's Schindler and Vietnam exhibits, and this year's Flight and Beyond exhibits.
Chayes and others have felt that the museum exhibits were stagnant and not doing enough to draw people in until now.
“I've lived in Petaluma close to 20 years now,” said Chayes. “My kids were little when we moved and the Petaluma Museum was a place you went to once. The kids were bored to death just as you were and you never went back. I thought it was such a shame. I've always had the desire to somehow connect with the museum and see if I could help them move forward. Fortunately, when Joe Noriel came along, that opportunity came to be because he was interested in upgrading the quality of the exhibits — not necessarily the content, but the forum of the existing exhibits. There are many ways to go about running a museum, and I felt that this place was in great need of serious change.”
Noriel said that when he became museum president in 2008, museum membership was below 300, which he found disturbing in a city of nearly 60,000 people. That number has since soared to more than 700 memberships. The exhibits are drawing on average 5,000 visitors. Last year's Vietnam exhibit drew between 7,000 and 8,000 visitors, a record for the museum. He expects the Pirates exhibit to top that.
“We had a review done by the American Association of Museums and one of the evaluations said that the Petaluma Museum was disconnected from the community,” said Noriel. “I remember I would walk around town and ask people if they had heard of the Petaluma Museum and they'd reply, ‘What museum?' It was clear to me that people didn't even know we existed. We had to get visible.”
But these changes in the form of outside exhibits, that some argue are not relative to Petaluma, have upset a number of people, according to Villa. She and a group of concerned citizens, many of them museum members, former presidents and museum presidents from other local museums, met to discuss their concerns about the Petaluma Museum's new direction.
“We had a school program where the docents were excited to show the kids the Petaluma exhibits, but the Elvis stuff was completely all over the building and they couldn't show them things because the scenes were so covered up. I feel that what Joe is bringing in could be brought into any building. Why not highlight the rich architecture of the building and not cover it up with gray material and bring in outside exhibits you could have anywhere? You can go to Memphis to see an Elvis exhibit.”
She pointed out that the same survey Noriel had the American Association of Museums do recommended that the museum avoid hosting such traveling exhibits.
“They have said it's a big no-no to bring in traveling trunk shows,” said Villa. “They went against the very survey they requested. Why do that when we've already got the building and Petaluma's heritage and history?”
Another concern brought up was that the museum gift shop was either shut down or reduced to a display case.
Noriel said that the room the gift shop was located in before was needed for the processing of artifacts, so it was moved into a long display case next to its former location.
“I wasn't here at the time and wasn't involved with that decision, said Noriel. “But from what I understand, the gift shop was never a moneymaker and they needed the space for processing artifacts, so the gift shop was moved.”
The other issue the traveling exhibits are raising is the cost. The Smithsonian exhibit, “Beyond,” was the most expensive of the ones so far. An article about the museum from another news source reported that “Beyond” cost the museum $25,000, but earned only $8,400 from admission. The same article claimed that the museum has lost $38,000 over the past two years. The Argus-Courier was unable to obtain financial records by press time to confirm the report.
“That figure is inaccurate,” said Noriel of the article. “First of all, they left out where we sent a letter to our membership saying we wanted to raise funds for the ‘Beyond' exhibit. We got a good $7,000 to $8,000 for it and that wasn't factored into that figure. Also, at least half of what was spent went toward the museum's infrastructure. The price included stuff we kept. We've got all new wall systems and lighting that is top notch. The wall system takes us to a level we need to be at. Money was sunk into the museum itself, instead of flimsy easels, to get us to where we need to be. It was a one-time cost that we don't have to pay again.”
Despite criticism, several of the new exhibits over the past few years have had connections with Petaluma history and culture. The Flight exhibit showcased the famous Fred Wiseman airmail flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. The Schindler exhibit featured Petaluma World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors as guest speakers.
“I'm very surprised that there is any criticism of the wonderful things that are going on at the museum,” said Ruth Gumbal, a Petaluma resident and Holocaust survivor who was one of the guest speakers during the exhibition. “How can anyone object? The Holocaust is part of our history, too.”
The Vietnam veterans exhibit last year incorporated many Petaluma veterans as guest speakers. The 15 Petaluma soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War were also honored with a special memorial.
“I'm going to become a lifetime member now, and I never thought I would be,” said Dick Sharke, a Vietnam veteran who joined the museum as a member because of the new programming. “I had been to the museum once or twice and thought it was drab. You never went back because it was always the same stuff. Now there's always something going on and I can't wait to go there. I just can't picture not wanting the things they've had go on there. That's what museums are for: to create interest and bring back history and the people that participated in these things. I think it's fabulous the museum is attracting people.”
“The new programming is making the museum appear on the radar of many people who didn't even know we had a museum,” said Jane Hamilton of Rebuilding Together. “The new direction is exciting and innovative.”
The current Pirates exhibit also has a Petaluma connection in that it was organized by Petaluma pirate enthusiast Nick Hoffman.
“For the Pirates exhibit, there are hundreds of little kids coming in with their parents and grandparents who have never been to the museum before,” said Sommer. “Then they go upstairs to see the permanent Petaluma exhibits. That wouldn't be happening if we didn't have the Pirates display. It's bringing in lots of people.”
There are also other exhibits planned that are directly connected to Petaluma and its history, such as “I Do,” an exhibit of the museum's collection of wedding dresses.
“Petaluma history doesn't stop at the chickens and eggs,” said Sharke. “History goes on and on. We have people here right now who have helped make Petaluma history. In fact Joe is talking about doing an exhibit on the Korean War, which I think is just awesome.”
(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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