Monday, January 3, 2011

The recent history of the Arizona Historical Society

When Governor Brewer announced her birthday gift to Arizona (5C Arizona Centennial Museum) she stated that the Arizona Historical Society would be responsible for administration.  In subsequent statements, the Governors office claimed that the museum management expertise of the historical society would enable it to replace the non self sustaining mineral museum with a self sustaining centennial museum.  The skills of the historical society would draw crowds that would provide funding.

Exactly how did the Governor make that determination?

Apparently not from history.

Reports prepared by the Arizona Auditor General from 1995 through 2002 show quite a different story. They show a seven year pattern of incompetence and even partial corruption.

A 1995 report highlighted two problems: the improper care of collections, and the ineffectiveness of the AHS Board as the Society’s governing body. The follow on 1998 report was more damming. It documented:

Poor project management
Poor exhibit procedure
Historical inaccuracies in exhibits
Improper storage of collections
Inappropriate storage methods
Inefficient use of storage space
Risk of damage and loss of artifacts
Insufficient internal control
Sloppy accounting practices
Inability to account for all monies taken in
Secret bank accounts
Employee theft of funds
Improper procurement procedures
Conflict of interest

The audits further stated that the board did not assume governance responsibilities, did not oversee fundraising, and did not provide adequate strategic planning.

A pitiful example of failure was the Marley Center Museum in Papago Park (Tempe). Although the building was completed in 1991, the museum first opened to the public five years later. Even then, the museum was only half finished. 

In 1998 the AHS had still only completed only 5 of 10 exhibits and had still failed to raise the 5.5 million (1986 estimate) to complete them. The AHS added more exhibits before planned ones were funded or completed.

When the public finally had the opportunity to visit the ten million dollar museum, few did. For example, during its first full fiscal year of being open to the public, the museum drew only about 25,000 visitors. However, the original concept plan had projected that the fully completed museum would draw 250,000 visitors annually.

Though attendance was low, cost was high because the Marley Center Museum’s exhibits used then up to date technology such as electronic maps, interactive touch-screen computer workstations, and film to tell various simple stories.

Will the 5C Centennial Museum be a repeat performance for the AHS?  There certainly appear to be common factors: high tech (high cost) displays for simple (boring?) concepts, east coast designers unfamiliar with Arizona, no clear plan,  no budget control, and a failed fund raising effort.

References (available at

Investigative Report
Arizona Historical Society
Conflict of Interest and Procurement Violations by Agency Officials
Debra K Davenport
Auditor General
State of Arizona, Office of the Auditor General
August, 2002

Procedural Review
Financial Audit Division
Arizona Historical Society
Debra K Davenport
Auditor General
State of Arizona, Office of the Auditor General
June 30, 2002

Report to the Arizona Legislature
Report to the Arizona Legislature
By Douglas R. Norton
Auditor General
State of Arizona, Office of the Auditor General
March 1998, Report No. 98-7

Report to the Arizona Legislature
Auditor General
State of Arizona, Office of the Auditor General
October 1995, Report No. 95-7

House Committee of Government Operations and Senate Committee on Government
Sunset Review – Arizona historical Society
Minutes of Meeting Thursday, November 12, 1998
Representative Flake, Cochair

Note: The minutes of the committee meeting conclude by stating there should be another audit in 3 to 5 years. Did that ever happen?  The Auditor Generals website shows no subsequent audit to determine if problems were corrected. Why not?

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