As the Moab Museum reopens with a new vision, the faces behind the scenes are changing as well.
The Moab Museum board elected a new president and vice president to lead their group after former president Dennis Brown stepped down from the position
Brown told the Moab Sun News he thought it was time to step aside from his role.
“I’ve been president for five years and I think I and the board agreed that perhaps it was time for somebody else to run the meetings,” Brown said.
The change-up follows the resignation of two museum trustees this summer who reported disagreements with Brown over issues of cultural representation. [See “Growing pains at the museum” pub. Aug. 27, 2020 -ed.]
Brown will continue to serve on the board and said that stepping back from presidential duties will leave him more time to focus on other objectives, like recruiting new board members and finding funding sources for the museum.
“We need to be more representative of the communities within the community, Native Americans and people of color,” Brown acknowledged.
Barb Webb, the new board president, has a background in geology and recently retired from the Canyonlands Natural History Association. Tim Smith, the new vice president, recently retired from his position as the Southeast Region Manager for Utah State Parks, in which he oversaw three regional museums amongst other parks.
“I feel so fortunate to have been involved during the incredible transformation of the museum into a fresh, bright space with new exhibits and a reimagined vision for what the museum can become,” said Webb in an email to the Moab Sun News, referring to the intensive renovation and rebranding the museum has undergone over the past two years.
Interim Executive Director Forrest Rodgers agreed with Brown that building cultural diversity on the board is a priority.
Rodgers first began working with the Moab Museum as a consultant in 2017 to help determine the community’s wishes for the future of the museum. A community assessment indicated a desire for the museum to tell a more complete and compelling story about Moab and the surrounding region. That prompted the organization to reflect on its mission and goals. In 2018, the board examined the museum’s identity and worked on defining a new image.
“That exercise was really to get trustees and staff to articulate what our aspirations were,” said Rodgers. With the new vision fleshed out, the board got to work hiring staff, designing and fabricating the new exhibit, and creating programming that could carry on while the building was closed.
The museum’s re-opening date was postponed due to COVID-19, but Rodgers said that’s given museum staff more time to further hone the exhibit. Meanwhile, by-appointment visits were available for a short time this fall, and museum staff have been creating virtual content to engage the community while the building remains closed.
Curatorial and Collections Manager Tara Baresh is helping to update the museum’s protocols both for displaying and storing objects. She is working to identify and organize many objects in the museum’s possession that have no meta-data—that is, no one currently on staff knows where the object came from or what its context is.
In particular, she and Rodgers referenced Native American artifacts in the museum’s collection that lack information on where the items were found or what tribe they could be related to. Baresh and Rodgers explained that the objects lose a lot of their meaning if the context is unknown and noted such displays are considered culturally insensitive to Indigenous tribes.
Now, the staff and board are trying to weave a narrative thread through the new exhibit that draws visitors physically through the museum while also revealing connections with and implications of the objects displayed.
“Ideally, museums are places of civic engagement that bring members of the community together to better understand challenging issues from our past and future,” Smith told the Moab Sun News in an email.
At the same time, the curatorial standards of both display cases and storage spaces needed to be upgraded.
Reaffirming new identity
The organization was absorbed in the nuts and bolts of creating the new display, and the core values of the newly defined brand were drowned in the hustle and bustle.
“In the chaos of the exhibit, we sort of forgot about it,” Rodgers admitted.
When former board members Michele Johnson and Deb Slechta resigned this past summer, citing racial insensitivity in the museum community and listening and communication issues, remaining board members realized they needed to revisit the concepts they had distilled out in the re-branding exercises of 2018. They held facilitated discussions this summer and fall about diversity and inclusion, and how the board wants to embody those characteristics.
“Individually and collectively, trustees worked on articulating the values that we profess,” Rodgers said. “Ultimately we ended up using almost the same value words we had developed eighteen months earlier.” He said that though the board arrived at similar conclusions to ones they had earlier determined, the exercise was healthy and valuable in confirming the tenets of the museum’s revitalized identity.
“As we start to build a new board, a more diverse board, they will want to know what our values are,” he said.
The core values identified in the discussions were community; trust, respect, and inclusion; reflection and inspiration; and stewardship.
“The values identified by the board are familiar and resonate with me as critical in moving Moab Museum forward towards a future that is more vital, inclusive and representative of the entire community,” said Smith, adding, “That said, the easy part is voicing nice-sounding words that make people feel good. The tougher part is action.”
Smith said he is excited to see the museum heading in the right direction, giving more space to past and present Native American perspectives as well as other communities-within-the-community.
“People from all over the country and world have migrated to Moab to live and work,” said Smith. “That was true during the uranium boom of the past but also the tourism boom of today.”
Webb agreed that the organization will focus on broader inclusion.
“Over the next year or so, we will be shaping the museum board to better reflect the complexity of our community,” she said. “And we’ll be working on strategies to ensure the museum’s future as the go-to place where the local community and visitors alike can discover the deeper stories of the people of this incredible place.”
“As we start to build a new board, a more diverse board, they will want to know what our values are.”
– Forrest Rodgers