Touching history

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Plenty of little ones were touching history during my recent visit to the Tempe History Museum. One mom looked on as her daughter pretended to ride various old-time vehicles spied in the museum, and another watched her son give an impromptu performance on a small stage near a pair of grown-ups enjoying a computer presentation of ASU’s role in preserving biodiversity.

The Tempe History Museum, dubbed the Tempe Historical Museum until completion of its renovation two Februaries ago, was founded by the Tempe Historical Society. They first opened it to the public in 1972. It was housed at the time in the east wing of the Tempe Public Library, which has since become the museum building. The museum also operates a restored Queen Anne Victorian house called the Petersen House Museum.

Folks who approach the library near the corner of Southern and Rural Roads will see the word “MUSEUM” in giant silver letters. Each of the letters is six feet tall and five feet wide — and weighs more than 500 pounds. The powder-coated metal is 3/4 inch think and has an anti-graffiti finish.

While planning renovations, the museum worked to include several “touch points for a good exhibit” — including ease of wayfinding and layering of information. Also lighting both comfortable for visitors and consistent with conservation requirements.

It’s clear when strolling through the museum that they achieved several additional goals as well — integrated multi-media, a personal connection with visitors, visual presentations well-matched to content, effective educational strategies, recreational value and multiple perspectives in terms of age, race and such.

But don’t tell the little ones that. Let them think it’s simply a cool place to find totem poles, old-fashioned vehicles, dress-up clothes and a play pit called Little Devil’s Stadium filled with soft colorful shapes. There’s plenty of interest to adults as well, and places to sit and linger over books or keep an eye on the kiddos.

The main exhibition hall includes several theme areas designed to demonstrate the ways Tempe is distinct, diverse and dynamic. There’s “College Town,” “Building Our Community,” “Living Together” and “Surviving in the Desert.” Those of you who’ve been in the Valley for a while will recognize several familiar faces — including that of Colleen Jennings-Roggensack of ASU Gammage — among those gracing giant hanging squares inside the museum.

The museum’s Community Room currently houses an Arizona Centennial photo exhibit, curated by local photographer Dick George, which “tells of the people, events and trends that have shaped Tempe over the past 100 years.” Its Changing Gallery features an exhibit about the history of rodeo and a trio of Arizona brothers, the Finley boys, who hailed from a ranching family and rose to national rodeo fame from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The Tempe History Museum also offers two online exhibits — “Doors to the Past: Preserving Tempe’s Architectural Heritage” and “Buffalos, Bulldogs & Bowl Games: 100 Years of Football in Tempe.” I’ll have to tell my hubby about that last one since attending bowl games was a family tradition before he headed off to college in California. Our daughter Jennifer, a student at Arizona State University, would get a kick out of all the museum’s nostalgic Sun Devil fare.

The February calendar for the Tempe History Museum looks plenty fascinating. This month’s “Third Thursday Night Cafe at the Museum” features Bruce Rittman sharing a bit about harvesting lipids produced by photosynthetic bacteria for biodiesel production. A concert celebrating Black History Month takes place at the museum Sat, Feb. 25 at 6pm. It’ll feature gospel, folk, jazz and soul tunes — and a reading of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” by Elmer Green. Also works by artists in the black community.

The museum hosts a monthly series of lunchtime talks presented by the Tempe Historical Society, and a special concert for children and families takes place next month. Folks can click here to learn about these and other upcoming events at  the Tempe History Museum.

When you visit, make time to explore artwork exhibited at the Vihel Activity Center adjacent to the museum, where you can also pick up information about all sorts of programs and activities presented by the City of Tempe, and the Tempe Public Library. The library is home to an entire floor dedicated to children, youth and families.

In a single outing, you can touch art, literacy and history.

— Lynn

Coming up: Time at the Tempe Public Library, Exploring Scottsdale’s Little Red Schoolhouse

Photos: Lynn Trimble

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