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Fight at the Museum 

Curator’s layoff sparks furor over the future of the Clarke

Last Dec. 21, Pam Service, director/curator of the Clarke Historical Museum since 2000, arrived at work a little after 9 a.m., ready to finish the Harper Motors exhibit she'd been preparing for the local car dealership's 100th anniversary in early 2012.

Lonnie Wellman, president of the museum's board of directors, was waiting for her. The board had met, he said, and decided to cut her position -- it had to trim the budget.

Crying a lot, Service finished the Harper exhibit, packed up her desk, and called her husband to come pick her up.

Outrage has simmered -- and rumors have spread -- ever since.

The loudest fretting has come from a number of local historians, archaeologists and collection donors. Tony Platt, professor emeritus at U.C. Berkeley and author of the book Grave Matters, circulated a letter that has gotten nearly 40 signatures and has been sent to the board. Platt's letter focused on Service's dismissal, asking that she be reinstated and that the board be open about its money troubles and seek the community's help. But you could read between the lines that the worry goes deeper:

"There's been an economic crisis at the Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka for several years," Platt wrote. "Now, there's a crisis of leadership as well."

 

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Cecile Clarke, a U.C. Berkeley history graduate, taught at Eureka High for 35 years. She was "a good but strict teacher," according to lore on the museum's webpage. Platt, in Grave Matters, describes her as having been "a forward-looking, modern professional with a social and political conservativeness rooted in Edwardian propriety." She "chopped her own wood and put career before family." Which gave her lots of time to collect things, especially Native American artifacts, mostly from Big Lagoon and Indian Island. Grave Matters, published last year (and on sale at the museum), details how Clarke and other amateur archaeologists and collectors, and university academics, plundered local Native American burial grounds. Clarke, Platt notes, collected to educate -- unlike some, whom she sometimes hired, who collected for profit.

Her collection outgrew her house, and she moved much of it to the high school where it remained, and grew, until she bought the former Bank of Eureka building on the corner of E and Third streets and turned it into the Clarke Memorial Museum, named in honor of her parents. She appointed a board of directors, although stories differ on how big this board was at first. At some point, Clarke appointed five life trustees as part of its makeup; some say this provision was part of the bylaws, some say it happened later. The Journal was unable to acquire a copy of the bylaws.

Later, the city of Eureka tapped redevelopment funds to build an annex, Nealis Hall, next door to display items from the Native American collection. The annex opened in 1979, the same year Cecile Clarke died at age 93. The city rents the hall to the museum for a buck a year.

The bulk of the museum's collections are non-Native relics and get displayed in the old bank building side -- the "Victorian room" -- where there's also a gift shop. It's a cramped, though quaintly elegant, space, built 100 years ago. It can only hold so much -- about 80 percent of the museum's collections are kept in storage upstairs and in back rooms, and get rotated into new displays periodically. They include 20,000-some photographs, hundreds of Native American items and tens of thousands of objects representing everyday life from the 1880s on. Quilts are stored on a huge, custom-built rack and tribal regalia, some of which tribal dance leaders borrow seasonally for ceremonies, hangs in storage closets. It's the largest collection of Northern California twined basketry in the world, says trustee Rosemary Hunter. Once reportedly coveted by the Smithsonian, many of these baskets are displayed now in special cases whose lights have UV filters, and the rest are tucked into storage areas, protected from deterioration.

"Miss Clarke left Humboldt county an immeasurable treasure," said Hunter in an interview last month. "It's basically our county museum. And I think we have no future without the past -- people need to be in touch with what's happened before so the same mistakes aren't made again."

The city of Eureka has long supported the Clarke, giving it money on the condition that it stays open a certain number of days and hours and professionally maintains the collections. The city contribution started out small -- 1 percent of the annual transient occupancy tax, capped at $10,000 a year. Starting in 2000, says City Manager David Tyson, the city stopped basing its contribution on the tax and began giving more -- up to $32,000 a year until about 2008, when the recession hit and the city dropped its Clarke funding to $25,000 a year. It's a little over a fifth of the overall museum budget.

"These funds aren't guaranteed," Tyson said. "It's something that we go through in our budget each year, and the council makes determination whether we have sufficient monies. The last couple of years, with all the budget problems we've had, everything was on the list to be reviewed. And the Clarke Museum, when it has to compete with fire and police and park and zoo -- it becomes hard to fund a discretionary program like a museum when they have to keep fire and policemen on the road and in the firehouses."

That's why, in 2009-2010 and again in 2010-2011, the city dipped into redevelopment funds to pay the Clarke -- after a succession of hearings, required by law, in which Service and museum board members made their case for the funds and city staff presented findings of the worthiness of such contribution.

But the redevelopment agency is kaput now, so that source has dried up. The Clarke's major sources of funding -- donations, grants and memberships -- have made gradual gains over the years. But its investments tanked on the stock market in recent years, introducing more uncertainty.

And the Clarke has faced other troubles.

Over the years, at least one other director was let go abruptly, sparking controversy. Two other directors were laid off, also, but former board president Jack Irvine recalls that they left without complaint.

The life trustees, meanwhile, have been the target of criticism. The Clarke board is large -- it can number up to 18 people -- but five members are life trustees, replaced only when they resign or die. Only life trustees can vote on the ascension of another life trustee. The rest of board members are elected by the full board and can serve up to six years consecutively; they can, however, return to the board after a breather once they've "termed out."

Around the country, a number of larger institutions still have life trustees: the Carnegie, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, art and history museums in Cleveland, Chicago and Houston. But it's not as common as it used to be, said Terry Davis, president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History.

"There's no rule against it, but best practices generally rule against it so that no one individual or set of individuals have too much control over time of a public institution," Davis said.

Dewey Blanton, with the American Association of Museums, said life trustees can become a problem if they use the trustee position to keep on the board regular members whose terms have maxed out. Or if they use their position abusively, disrupting the board's function. Or if they appoint other trustees as a ceremonial gesture, to recognize long-term commitment -- "clogging the system, so to speak," said Blanton.

At the Clarke, the current life trustees are John Winzler (on the board since the 1960s), Gerry Hale, Rosemary Hunter, Lane Strope and Wendy Wahlund. The Journal couldn't reach Winzler or Hale. The other three defended the current board structure, saying life trustees provide continuity and institutional knowledge.

Some do seem attached to Humboldt history rather intimately. Trustee Lane Strope, 65, is named after pioneer Lane Faulk. His family started the Times Printing Co. "seven years before the Civil War broke out." His son, Seth, recently took over the business.

Trustee Hunter, 69, who over the years has cleaned and repaired a number of the Clarke's baskets, is a basketweaver who learned the art first from her Cherokee grandmother and later from Yurok and Karuk elders. But life trustees have been accused of not encouraging Native American representation on the board. They've been accused of nepotism, as well. There are some detectable family lines: Board president Lonnie Wellman (not a trustee) is married to the assistant registrar Lynn Wellman -- but Lynn was already employed there when she encouraged Lonnie to join the board, because he was spending so much time there anyway building stuff. The Wellman's daughter, Mariah, just became a regular member. Member Lisa Slack's father, Fred, was a trustee. But new names do cycle in.

The life trustees also have been accused of discouraging applications for federal grants, and being too possessive of the collections.

Coleen Kelley Marks, who was the director/curator from 1979 to 1985, before being dismissed, thinks "the crushing blow" was when she applied for a federal grant, which triggered a visit from Washington. "The board, they did not like that at all," she said. "They did not want feds coming in and looking over their books and having a say in their museum. They take this personally. It's their museum, their collection -- not the public's."

Pam Service, too, had suggested ending the life-trustee structure.

 

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Service, now 66, started work at the Clarke Museum in January 2000 -- uprooting herself and her husband from their home and jobs in Bloomington, Ind., to move happily back to their native California so she could take the director/curator job.

She had worked 17 years as the director/curator of the Monroe County Historical Museum in Bloomington, and her resume included an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley and a master's in history and archaeology from The University of London in England. She said she found the museum in sad shape. Much of museum's exhibit space had been shut down, the records were still all on paper, and storage rooms were in poor condition.

"It wasn't until Pam Service was hired that they really, under her leadership, began to make the museum an ethical and professional place," said Platt, interviewed last month.

After she arrived, Service began building her team. Not too computer savvy herself, Service hired Art Barab as part-time registrar, and he installed PastPerfect Museum software to catalog and manage the museum's collections. Barab had been a volunteer before that for a couple of years, coming in once weekly to do a financial statement. Service hired Lynn Wellman to clean up the textiles room where quilts were crammed into boxes and garments needed to be repaired, labeled and cataloged. In Nealis Hall, Native American curator Dale Ann Sherman remodeled the Native American exhibits, which hadn't been touched in nearly 20 years, and there was a grand re-opening in 2001. In 2003, Service, Sherman and Hélène Rouvier, who started as an intern from Chico State University and continued as a volunteer until 2006, began pulling funerary items from displays and readying them for repatriation to their respective tribes.

Some speculate that that might be when the trouble started.

Some on the board, including at least one life trustee, didn't want things to be repatriated, Service said. And, because the museum doesn't receive federal funding, it didn't have to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But it seemed the right thing to do to Service and her staff; eventually the board agreed. To date, hundreds of items have been returned to local tribes. The remainder, whose origins are unknown, are in limbo while an intertribal coalition decides what to do with them.

Service also upgraded the gift shop, revved up public relations, signed the museum up with the Chamber of Commerce and Eureka Mainstreet, spoke to community groups, and opened the Clarke for the monthly Arts Alive!, drawing up to 300 more visitors on that night alone. And she made sure the exhibits were changed frequently, she said, so people would have something new to see. In a parallel career, Service writes fantasy and science fiction novels -- she also wrote a book called "Eureka, and Humboldt County," sales of which bring royalties in for the Clarke. She also changed the museum's name, from Clarke Memorial Museum to Clarke Historical Museum, to indicate its devotion to local history, not just one family.

So why, with all this experience and effort, would the board let her go? Why not accept her offer, made during previous budget discussions, to work part-time for minimum wage and no benefits?

Board president Wellman said reducing her hours and pay wouldn't have fixed the deficit.

Wellman said, contrary to rumor, he didn't tell her she had to leave immediately. Well, at first he did, he said. Then, later in the day as she was packing, he told her she could have until the end of Saturday to leave (Service confirms this). Still, it's short notice.

"I worked for PG&E for awhile," he said. "They handed me my check and said ‘thank you, we don't need you anymore.' ... It's the best way to do it; people can get disgruntled, otherwise."

Service said nobody thanked her. And though she wrote an email to the board members afterward, thanking them for letting her work there, none of them wrote back. She said she loves the museum; if they asked her back, she'd be there.

 

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Thirty-seven people signed Platt's letter, including the Big Lagoon Rancheria chairman, two tribal historic preservation officers (Karuk and Blue Rake Rancheria), archeologists, professors, doctors, writers, and even a former Clarke board president (Irvine).

Service brought that museum out of the faded-labels past into the computer age, some said in emails to each other and in interviews with the Journal. She'd professionalized the collections, cleaned the place up, and -- most important, some said -- improved relations between the museum and Native American communities, partly by overseeing the beginning of repatriation of items that had come from burial grounds.

"I'm concerned that the repatriation process will be stalled now," Platt said. "I'm worried about relationships with tribal native organizations in the region. I'm worried about the economic footing of the Clark, and whether the city will continue to support it and under what conditions."

He and other signers suggest there are systemic problems at the Clarke that go beyond the dismissal of one person. They accuse the board of being outdated and secretive -- domineered by an old-guard of life trustees who don't like change -- and, worse, of being unable to secure long-term funding, its main duty. They're worried the Clarke Museum's collections, especially a renowned Karuk basket collection, now might be at risk -- threatened by everything from pests to being sold off. They fear the museum could close.

Some of these detractors admit they haven't called any of the board members to discuss their fears. Others attended a meeting in January and reported, afterward, that the board seemed reluctant to hear their comments.

The board's post-layoff actions haven't helped. It made no formal announcement of Service's layoff, even as rumors circulated. The winter-spring newsletter didn't mention it, although it did show the new staff lineup, with the main change being the promotion of Native American collection curator Ben Brown to also serve as overall museum curator. Many board members refused to talk with the Journal, including treasurer and life trustee Wendy Wahlund, whom other board members said would have to explain the finances. Some said they didn't trust the "negative slant" they thought the story would take. But those who did agree to talk were friendly, and maintained that Service's dismissal was a financial decision.

It's clear, however, that terminating Service was not an easy decision. The vote was 6-5.

"I was not in favor of it," said 12-year board member Jim Moranda. "I likened it to trying to run a ship without a rudder.

Whatever the reasons for Service's departure, the Clarke's financial troubles are indeed no figment. Most of its annual income comes from public support: gifts, grants, fundraisers, membership dues, and a city of Eureka contribution. A small amount comes from gift shop sales. And Cecile Clarke left the museum money to invest.

Most years, revenues stayed a smidge above expenses, and investments generally have gained gradually -- the museum's net assets have gone from $142,245 in 2001 to  $620,633 in 2010, according to the nonprofit's Form 990s filed with the IRS. The assets jumped more than $320,000 in 2002, an anomalous year, when the museum's stock market account made good sales. In 2009, stock prices fell, the account dropped and the nonprofit registered a $114,000 deficit. The board, said Service, had begun dipping into the investment principal to pay the bills.

In recent years, the board had begun tightening the belt. It reduced office expenses, got rid of a storage unit and sold some non-Native American, non-Humboldt items. It reduced the hours of the five part-time staffers, including the office manager and maintenance man. Service's salary dropped from $34,000 to $28,000 and her insurance coverage was reduced.

Last year, Service laid out more scenarios for cutting $20,000 from the roughly $140,000 budget and for improving revenues. The most drastic, other than cutting her position: Shrink her pay more, eliminate the insurance and reduce her hours. She also told the board she'd arranged a meeting with a consultant who could help launch a community endowment drive. She said the board nixed the idea and made her cancel the appointment (board members interviewed could not confirm this).

Retired local bookseller Jere Bob Bowden said he went to the public meeting the Clarke board held in January after hearing Service had been dismissed -- a weird affair, he noted, in which the board followed no recognizable rules of order -- he let them have it.

"They had been talking about how the fund-raising was down, and membership, and I said, 'With all due respect, this board has failed. The board's responsibility is to develop a broader membership base and to be more aggressive in raising money."

 

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Two Fridays ago, about a half hour before the Clarke Museum's closing time of 4 p.m., Karuk basket-weaver Karen Young-Lenk and her husband, Martin, walked in the door. They'd driven from their home in Ashland to do research at the university and then check on the Hover basket collection here at the museum. The collection begun by Young-Lenk's great-great-grandmother Emma Pearch was donated and sold to the museum by her cousin, Lee Hover (who died last year), beginning in the 1980s. Young-Lenk also wanted to renew her family's museum membership -- something she hadn't done in many years.

This January, when she heard Service had been dismissed, Young-Lenk had shared a story in an email to other historians about how, in 1998, a former museum board president called the police to escort her, her children and Hover from the museum. They'd come down to inventory the baskets and the board president didn't like that, but they refused to leave until they'd finished counting the baskets.

In a Feb. 23 email to the Journal, Young-Lenk said that in recent years she'd been pleased with the way the basket collections were displayed, and that she'd had positive interactions with board members. But she was worried about the baskets again, now that the director/curator was gone. Who was overseeing their well-being? What happens to them if financial problems shut down the museum?

"I'm concerned with the possibility that the board decides to start selling baskets to keep up on its bills," she wrote.

On Feb. 24, Young-Lenk and her husband entered the museum and wended their way through the bank-building part of the museum to the office -- past the cheery volunteer at the front desk; the gift shop full of local history books and handcrafts; an old typewriter collection; Cecile Clarke's labeled stash of rocks and minerals; the duck hunter in his canoe; the condor in his glass case, in the company of ducks and a common murre; and several cases celebrating Harper Motors.

Office manager Carly Marino greeted them, took their money and added their names to the membership list. Marino came to the museum in summer 2010 as a grant-writing intern for her library science master's from San Jose State. Months later Service hired her part-time to be the office manager. Her hours recently went back up, from 24 a week to 28; she volunteers a lot more time, she said.

Ben Brown, the curator, came downstairs to greet Young-Lenk and her husband. Brown came to the museum in 2006 as a master's degree history intern from San Francisco State University. He inventoried collections on the bank side -- the paintings, the 1920s kitchen now on display. Then he volunteered during his vacations. In 2008, Service hired him to be the registrar for the Native American collections -- cleaning, storing, inventorying, cataloging. He was promoted to curator of that collection. After Service's dismissal, Brown was named curator of the entire museum, as well, and his hours were increased from 24 a week to 28. He, too, volunteers extra hours. He also works 20 hours a week for the Wiyot Tribe as the assistant registrar.

He offered to show the Lenks around. They entered Nealis Hall, where the exhibit of traditional and contemporary Karuk art, "Pi'êep káru Payéem: Long Ago and Now," looms large and beautiful in one entire end, along with a Wiyot exhibit. A huge timeline is on one wall, beside an enormous green and blue map of Karuk ancestral territory painted by Lyn Risling. The other half of the hall is dominated by two main collections -- the Hover collection of baskets, and the John Becker collection of regalia and other items.

"Want to see upstairs?" Brown said.

They followed him up into the tidy, orderly space where stone objects and baskets sat on shelves, archival paper and curtains protecting the baskets from deterioration. In recent years he had transformed this storage space based on recommendations from a team of experts who'd visited in 2008.

"When I arrived here, it was baskets within baskets within baskets," he said. He pointed out the wood shelves, noting that wood off-gassing can make baskets deteriorate; he'd sealed the wood in a special coating and then placed muslin on top.

Three beautifully taxidermied specimens of birds whose feathers are used for regalia -- a red-shafted flicker, a quail and a meadowlark -- perched on a high shelf next to a basket. Brown showed the Lenks the microscope he uses to detect live mold spores, and how he kills them by taking the item in and out of refrigeration in 24-hour increments. He talked about all that he'd still like to do.

As they walked around the workspace, Martin Lenk whispered, "He's good." Then, louder, he said, "Very nice, Ben. Very nice."

 

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The Clarke's remaining staff is a little annoyed by all the doubt.

"I can't believe anyone would believe we wouldn't keep that beautiful Native American collection safe," Lynn Wellman said. "I don't understand where all this fear is going."

Wellman, who is 66, Barab and Service all started at the museum around the same time.

"It has always been a team effort," she said. "It's a sign that Pam did a good job that her staff can continue. ... The museum runs itself now -- you go on the computer, find where things are, research the history of what's already there. And we've always done that."

She said the staff did cancel the morning breakfast talks to community groups -- that was something Service did.

"But we're still doing exhibits," Wellman said, adding that she did the Girl Scout exhibit, celebrating 100 years, that opened this past weekend. "We still loan out all of the regalia we were loaning before. We're still leading tours. Carly and Ben are writing grants. We're still getting all the school memberships. We just did a Cub Scout tour."

She said Marino organizes the tours, and several volunteers and sometimes staff lead them. Barab takes care of the vault -- where all the main, bank-side collections are stored when not on display, including paintings, guns and books. Wellman takes care of the textiles. Brown takes care of the Native American side and oversees everything. And Lonnie Wellman is the interim director -- mainly so they have someone to sign official papers.

Wellman has a charge-forward attitude. But it isn't far-fetched to wonder how she and the others can get so much done without cracking. She is also a volunteer coordinator for the Eureka Theater, and when the Journal reached her she'd been busy trying to get its events calendar out. "I've been stressed to the max," she said.

Brown has his two jobs, and like the others works more hours than he's paid for. But the slender, brown-haired 35-year-old does not exude stress, and he seems to deflect criticism like a modern, toxin-resistant coating. Or a patient parent.

"I try to look at it in the positive," Brown said. "I think it's really good the community is concerned about the welfare of the Clarke Museum. ... But being on the inside, I know we are a strong, confident staff."

He said there is no threat to the collections.

"We actively monitor for pests," he said. "I've been trained in preserving collections."

Brown and Marino plan to redo the website, with help from its original designer, and upload more images of the collections onto it so the whole world can enjoy them; Brown's taking an Adobe Dreamweaver course at Humboldt State University to learn how.

"We're also going to do a murder-mystery fundraiser on the 5th of May," he said. "That was my idea. I have lots of ideas. We really need more money for payroll, obviously, and I'm hoping this will turn into an annual benefit. And we're creating a corporate membership package -- we're expanding the space in Nealis Hall to provide businesses an opportunity to host a meeting or have a company party here. That was my idea, too."

He's got more moneymaking ideas, but applying for federal grants -- as recommended by Rouvier and others -- is not one of them. The board shies away from them, said Brown, because they require an annual audit costing up to $10,000. Plus, it takes 40 hours to complete one federal grant.

OK, for a moment, maybe there's a hint of weary defiance in Brown -- he's heard what some of his colleagues are saying, that though bright, he's not experienced enough for the job. And that staffers couldn't possibly run this place like a collective, without a distinct leader.

But he likes that set-up. "I think it's fantastic," he said. "Maybe that's my generation talking. I'm used to it. As for morale -- I've never seen it higher."

Brown said he's fond of Rouvier and Platt, and he's spoken with them both recently. He gets where they're coming from, but he sees a bit of a disconnect. Here are all these people expressing genuine concern about the museum, and yet most of them aren't members of it -- including 33 of the 37 signers of Platt's letter and about three-fourths of the people who spoke angrily at the January board meeting.

"It's only 25 bucks a year," he said. "I encourage them to become members."

 

 

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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