MNA completes collections building

Flagstaff, AZ – The Museum of Northern Arizona is moving its thousands of artifacts in a run down warehouse into a $7 million cushy, state of the art collections building. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales took a tour of the old and new facilities and has this report.

Since the 1950s MNA has housed its Navajo textiles, prehistoric pottery, baskets, jewelry and kachina dolls in an uninsulated, leaking, cinder block building. Robert Breunig directs the museum.

BREUNIG: So this is our old collection storage area. And as you can see we have a really old style gas heater. That scares me. And that's it that's the only climate control we have.

He points out water stains on the ceiling and old wooden cabinets that absorb humidity and stick. Conservation experts had warned the museum they were putting their collections at risk. So Breunig solicited the help of Betsy and Harry Easton, a local couple, who donated five million dollars to build a more appropriate facility. The rest of the funding came from grants.

After the nine eleven terrorist attacks money didn't flow so freely. The Museum of Northern Arizona had hit an all time low. In a desperate attempt to fix its bottom line the board sold off a million dollars worth of paintings and artifacts from the museum's collection - a move that lost MNA its national accreditation.

So they called Robert Breunig to the rescue. Number one on his long list of things to do was re-establish trust with the museum's members and trustees. He has done that by regaining accreditation last year and now moving the museum's extensive collection into a safer building.

BREUNIG: You can see what's at stake here. This is an amazing collection of historic Navajo textiles. We have 900 in our collection. We want to make them available to future generations so Navajo weavers who come here can look at these textiles.

Just a few yards away from the outdated bunker the new building proudly stands. Part Hogan, part greenhouse and part cathedral - unique doesn't begin to describe it. The architect worked with a committee of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and White Mountain Apache tribal representatives to honor their requests.

As a result the building has an East facing entrance to greet the morning sun; a circular shape; and connections to the natural world with views of the San Francisco Peaks and a "living" roof that collects storm water for its native grasses and flowers growing on it.

BREUNIG: The water that comes off the roof it will come down and hit these planters then it will be pumped to the back of the building to a 20,000 gallon storage tank where it will be stored until the dry season. And when things get dry we can pump it up to the roof and water the plants. In essence we have a complete hydrological cycle right here on our roof.

The exterior walls are constructed with Ashfork sandstone and railroad trestle wood salvaged from the Great Salt Lake. A long slot window is perfectly aligned with the sun on the spring and fall equinoxes. Inside there's a large picture window framing the San Francisco Peaks.

BREUNIG: This is where the collections are stored. It's a very large room. You can't tell how big it is from the outside. You come in and go my goodness.

Breunig is giddy as he shows off the Easton Collections Center. MNA maximized the large space using a compact storage system often used in libraries and law offices where the tall steel cases are on tracks. By turning a crank an aisle opens up.

Builders formed interior walls using hydraulic lime plaster, a material often used in European cathedrals. It absorbs humidity and releases it when the air is dry. Breunig hopes the building will qualify for the highest standard in sustainable design.

After completing the tour he takes a step back and recalls an interview we did five years ago when he first came on board.

BREUNIG: It was one of our low points and there was a real question about the survival of the museum and our commitment to the care of our collections. One of the statements that I hope this building makes and I think we make it very clearly is the Museum of Northern Arizona is seriously committed to the long term care of our collections today and in the future. Do you feel like your job is done? (laughs) Heavens no!

Breunig says his next project is getting the museum's finances in order and remodeling the exhibit building across the street.

With the help of 50 volunteers they plan to have the collection moved into its new home in two years.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.