The Mesa Historical Museum will shutter its doors to the public early next year, leaving its building a warehouse for a vast collection of artifacts.
It could take years before money is available to open a facility that can welcome visitors on a regular basis, though museum officials vow they will keep history alive through traveling exhibits and other efforts.
The closure comes after the Mesa Historical Society boosted attendance at its museum with new exhibits, but it has lost city funding. The recession makes it tougher to get corporate donations, and the museum has always struggled at a Lehi location that's far off the beaten path.
"Everybody said, 'This is the worse imaginable place you can put a museum and expect it to survive,'" said Mesa City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who is also a member of the museum advisory board.
But the museum will live on in some form.
Mesa is in talks to take ownership of the museum building and the collection from the Mesa Historical Society, which now owns everything. Mesa is struggling with its own budget problems and won't have money to keep the facility open for visitors.
The museum's volunteers and three employees will stay on to preserve and catalogue roughly 50,000 items, which will be available for research.
However, the historical society has plans that could make some exhibits more visible than they are today.
Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience exhibit will move to the Arizona Museum for Youth in downtown Mesa. That 2-year-old exhibit has proved the museum's most popular ever and is likely to be viewed even more at the other museum, said Vic Linoff, president of the historical society's board of directors.
The exhibit should move by February. It's the first exhibit anywhere dedicated to spring training, Linoff said, and tells the story of how Mesa is the birthplace of an institution that now includes many Arizona cities.
The Chicago Cubs get plenty of space there, as their Mesa spring training dates back to the 1950s. Visitors can even push a button to watch a video of famed announcer Harry Caray leading a stadium of fans to the song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Fans study every piece of the exhibit, Linoff said, and some visitors have offered to share their stories or donate artifacts from their attics.
"We have developed a body of knowledge about the Cactus League that just didn't exist anywhere," Linoff said.
The historical society hopes to eventually have a museum dedicated just to spring training, placing it either downtown or at a new training facility for the Cubs that the city is considering. It seems unlikely the museum would reopen at its current location, the former Lehi school, because of its remoteness and the cost of maintaining a building dating to 1914.
Other materials may end up in traveling exhibits in libraries, city buildings, other museums or perhaps even shopping malls. Already, Mesa's public libraries have some items from the popular exhibit on the "Wallace and Ladmo Show." Those traveling exhibits get more exposure than if they were at the museum, and may prove a good model to expose more history to the public.
While less of the museum's collection will be available to the public at any given time, what is available will get more exposure.
"I don't think the compromise is that bad given the history and reality of historic museums across the country," said Johann Zietsman, Mesa's Arts and Cultural Department director.
The museum's lack of financial success comes despite great leaps the historical society has made, Linoff said. For years, the museum focused on Mormon pioneers, and exhibits never changed. The museum created new exhibits to cover broader topics, and displays changed so visitors could expect to see something new if they returned.
"They have a fantastic collection," Zietsman said. "They've really done magnificent work in terms of an organization that's self-funded."
Mesa and the historical society are still in talks to work out all of the details of transferring ownership. The groups will see if it's possible to open the museum for some events or perhaps one day a week, Linoff said.
Even a closing date is uncertain. The historical society will run it as long as funds allow, Linoff said, adding that some fundraisers have kept the museum going longer than expected. But Linoff said there's no way the nonprofit society can raise enough money to go much longer.
Any new museum will have to present Mesa's history in a more contemporary and compelling way if it is to survive, Linoff said. Exhibits have to change and include more dramatic and interactive presentations to draw patrons in.
"Nobody wants to read the label," Linoff said. "This is the iPod generation. There has to be stuff going on."