Quest to open iconic Arizona mining museum nets a win

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A shuttered museum that once housed thousands of minerals, crystals, rocks and fossils will open its doors for the first time in years after backers in the Legislature succeeded in reviving the location.

The Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum had been a regular stop for school field trips in the past, bringing in tens of thousands of Arizona students each year to learn about minerals and the state's long history in the mining industry. Those visits came to a halt when it shut down in 2011.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in late April by sponsor Republican Sen. Gail Griffin that will reopen the Phoenix museum. It's not clear when the museum will reopen.

Senate Bill 1415 will transfer the ownership of the museum to the University of Arizona. The university will be responsible for operating and maintaining the museum. The state will contribute $600,000 per year toward the facility, including money for rent and a curator's salary.

Richard Zimmermann, a longtime supporter of the museum, said it has tremendous historical value and an irreplaceable collection of minerals that made it stand out as a science museum. Along with its vast collection of minerals and rocks, the museum held mining artifacts and equipment.

"There are specimens in the collection that were taken from mines that don't exist anymore, so it has value as a science reference collection," Zimmermann said.

He also said it was an important educational facility for the 40,000 children who came through there each year. For many of them, "it was a lifetime learning experience, and some were inspired to pursue careers in science, geology, mining engineering," Zimmerman said.

Ashley Smith, a registrar for the Arizona Historical Society's museum collections, said most of the facility's mineral specimens are being stored or displayed in Tempe at the AZ Heritage Center. Smith said items from the former museum's collection that could not be moved remain are under lock and key at the vacant facility.

The 18,000-square-foot property closed in 2011 for renovations that were pushed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer. But it unexpectedly never reopened after failed attempts to gather the needed funding for the planned expansions.

Ducey had vetoed legislation by Griffin two years ago that attempted to reopen the museum under new management and give it $428,300. The governor said he vetoed the measure because there was "not a plan or organizational structure in place to ensure the successful transition of the mining and mineral museum."

Griffin said the different financing structure helped get the bill passed this time around.

The University of Arizona will now have two major rock collections under its management. The school already has a mineral museum in Tucson that has more than 35,000 specimens in its main collection.

The school is just starting to plan how it will use the funding from the Legislature for various exhibits at the Phoenix museum, said Dr. Kimberly Andrews Espy, senior vice president for research at the university.

The minerals will still be the core exhibit of the museum, but the large space leaves a great opportunity to showcase other things relative to Arizona's history, Espy said.

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