Sunday, February 6, 2011

A private tour of the Marley Center Museum at Papago Park.

Mid morning on Friday February 5th, we visited the Arizona Historical Society’s Marley Center Museum in Tempe.  The AHS does not refer to it as the Marley Center Museum anymore. Their website now calls it the “Museum at Papago Park.” Nor is the Marley name in the big letters along the top of the building.  However, the Marley name can still be found in very small letters above an arch as you approach the museum.

We were treated to a private (unguided) tour. We received no invitation and we made no reservation. It just so happened that no one else was there. Upon completion of our private tour, as we were leaving, a family of four approached the museum. They looked through a glass wall at a few Sandra Day O’Connor dresses and gowns (only things that can be seen without paying) and then declined to pay the admission fee. They left when we did. 

As we approached the Marley on College Avenue, it did not look particularly large.  That was because there is an enormous parking lot between the Marley and College Avenue.  However, when we crossed the parking lot, the colossal size became very apparent.  A wide stairway lead took us up to a gigantic patio.  Other than its size, the most striking thing about the patio was that it is completely barren.  There are no historical artifacts, murals or any other features that suggest the presence of a museum. There are no landscaping features; not even a potted plant. Apparently, all of the enormous space is needed for special events.

The huge patio leads to an arch that opens on a courtyard filled with tables and chairs. Left of the arch is a kitchen, beyond which are a bar and a glass walled room filled with tables and chairs. The building is attractive, but sterile, especially for a museum.  After wandering about in bewilderment for a few minutes we spotted letters above a door in a glass wall that said “museum entrance” above it.

Inside the door is a huge lobby with nothing in it.  The only visible feature is an enormous stairway leading to the second floor.  To the left of the stairs is the glass room containing Judge O’Connor’s dresses.  To the right is a small desk with an attendant collecting admission.  Still farther to the right was a hallway leading to a children’s area, a library, and two classrooms. There was a closed sign on the library, with no indication of when it might open again. The class rooms were piled full of junk.

The second floor contains museum displays and historic artifacts. Some cars and trucks, a tractor, and horse drawn cannon are distributed about the museum area. There is also a windmill, a gas pump, an airplane, and a fiberglass statue from a defunct fast food store.  A variety of building facades in various styles have small rooms behind them displaying a variety of historical artifacts. The most striking thing about the second floor museum is the same as that of the fist floor non-museum area: conspicuous consumption of floor space with large garage-sized gaps separating various clusters of displays.

Many of the displays were designed to be interactive. There are buttons to push, headphones to wear, and touch screen displays to activate.  Few of them work anymore.  One area of displays has a large permanently lettered “out of order” sign, but most of the non-operable displays are not signed or tagged.  There is nothing suggesting that they will be repaired, or that anyone is aware they don’t work.

The museum portion of the building has a lot of floor space, but it represents only a small percentage of the total building floor space.  Much of the second floor is used for boardrooms (for rent) rather than for museum space.  The first floor has only a small museum area contain gown and dresses. The remainder of the first floor (other than the gigantic lobby) is taken up by a 272 seat auditorium, staff areas, and the unused library and classrooms.

The layout of the building and the condition of the museum area left us with a question as we left:

Was the Marley designed to be a history museum, or was it designed to be a high-end special events center with an assortment of historical artifacts on a portion of the second floor?  

Note: The AHS website states that the big lobby can be rented for cocktail parties for a fee of $500. The courtyard (right next to the bar) is available for another $500.

As seen from College Avenue (main entrance)


Bar alongside courtyard


  1. Why is the library closed? I was there a couple if times before to do research and need to go back. Can you fill us in? Should I contact the museum?

  2. You will have to ask the AHS why they closed the library. Perhaps the AHS (Phoenix faction) is not particularly interested in their mission as defined by ARS 41-823 section B. The law says the collections are to be "kept accessible to the public".

  3. Oh, the library will be kept public. But with very, very, limited hours...and soon a fee for use. That's AHS, burning bridges where ever they are found.