Rocks and a Hard Place

Written by Dolores Tropiano Category: Valley News Issue: April 2014
Group Free
Pin It

Part of the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum collection is on display again, but the fate of its old home has yet to be determined.

This month marks almost three years since the controversial closing of the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum in Downtown Phoenix. Since then, rock and mineral lovers have speculated on the whereabouts of the former collection like old miners prospecting for precious minerals. Some say it was scattered, while others thought it was tossed aside like a worthless piece of slag.

Consider the mystery solved. For the first time since the museum closed, rock lovers will be able to see portions of the collection once again, in a new location. Meanwhile, plans are underway for the Polly Rosenbaum Building in Downtown Phoenix that housed the collection for more than 20 years.

 The Gallery of Natural History, featuring 1,000 specimens from the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum, opens this month at the Arizona Historical Society (AHS) Museum at Papago Park in Tempe. The AHS acquired the collection (and the Rosenbaum Building) from the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, when the museum closed in 2011 to make way for the never-realized Arizona Centennial Museum.

On display is an 8-foot-tall native copper specimen from Ajo. “It is so big. I love seeing it because it is just solid copper,” says Madison Barkley, Curator of Natural History at the AHS Museum at Papago Park, who promises the entire 22,000 piece collection will always be accessible to scientists and researchers.

Other highlights of the exhibition, which Barkley says will be on view indefinitely, include an authentic moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission (a gift to Arizona from late President Richard Nixon) and a 206-pound chunk of the Canyon Diablo meteorite from Meteor Crater near Winslow. The “rock food” display, featuring a fun assortment of rocks and minerals that look like meals on plates, is a much-loved leftover from the former museum.   

Gone is former Governor Rose Mofford’s collection of everything from kachinas to jewelry, which was returned, like other pieces on loan to the museum, to its owner. Most of Mofford’s collection is now on display in the Bullion Plaza Cultural Center and Museum in Miami, Ariz., and in her hometown of Globe.

The closing of the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum in 2011 was to make way for the Arizona Centennial Museum, which became the Arizona Experience Museum (AEM), billed as the signature project for the state’s centennial celebration in 2012. That party came and went and neither museum materialized due to lack of funds. Supporters of the mining museum rooted for its return like fans at a concert hoping for an encore.

Now officials behind the scenes say the AEM concept is dead. Instead, they are working on a $10 million multiuse plan for the 18,000-square-foot Polly Rosenbaum Building.  “We’re going to build something very significant that will involve a transformation of the government mall,” says John Driggs, former mayor of Phoenix and member of the Arizona Centennial Commission.

His plan? To develop a conference center for civic and cultural activities and bring citizen groups, lobbyists and state agencies together with the legislature and other government entities. He began working to revive the Arizona State Capitol Building and breathe new life into the Carnegie Center, and “We expanded our vision once the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum became defunct,” says Driggs, who has a history of restoring historical Valley landmarks, including  Tovrea Castle and Rosson House Museum.  

Driggs is working with AHS and the state legislature (his son, Sen. Adam Driggs, serves as Republican majority whip) along with Phoenix city officials to line up interest and private sector contributions. Plans are in the preliminary stages, but Driggs says an announcement is imminent. “We can turn it into a vibrant center for citizens,” dreams Driggs. “But the last thing this legislature needs is another failed fundraising effort.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the idea are just a stone’s throw away.

Dick Zimmermann, a former volunteer at the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum, calls himself a rock thrower. Zimmermann took up a battle against AHS, saying it defied statutes set up by late state Rep. Polly Rosenbaum to preserve the museum. A Joint Legislative Budget Committee report indicates the fiscal 2014 budget still provides $428,000 a year to AHS for operations of the mining museum, even though it no longer exists ($67,500 is allotted for the curator). According to Bill Ponder, chief administrative officer for the Arizona Historical Society, the money goes to the State Department of Administration for rent and building maintenance.

Zimmermann and others are watching closely as Sen. Eddie Ableser, D-Tempe, reintroduces Senate Bill 1023 (for the third time) to restore the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum. As of this writing, the bill was pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Zimmermann’s dream is to see the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum restored at its original location. He’s not exactly enthusiastic about Driggs’ vision for the space. “I hear the term ‘multiuse facility,’” Zimmermann says, “but I think that means a cocktail lounge.”