Marana Heritage Conservancy/NRG

What originally began as an obstacle has now become a blessing. A closed door, became an opportunity. This summer the Marana Heritage Conservancy’s History on Wheels will become a reality, but the only reason it exists was that a different idea wouldn’t work.

The Marana Heritage Conservancy has taken great pains to preserve the town’s rich history. Their exhibit rooms in the town center have many displays showing the history of the area. In January of 2012 a Cub Scout troop visited and loved the showroom. One of their mothers suggested contacting the area schools and letting them know about how successful the tour was, especially the interactive displays that they had. Unfortunately, when the Conservancy’s Joan Smith reached out to the schools she learned that the funds for field trips were limited.

“They could only use them for field trips that specifically to what they were studying that week,” said Smith, the Conservancy’s Secretary.

Instead of being disappointed, Smith got creative thanks to a suggestion from Dawn Morley, who handles advertising for the Anza Days, a festival that celebrates the route of explorer Juan Bautista de Anza took through southern Arizona. If they could not bring students to the displays, maybe they could bring the displays to the students. “Dawn said ‘what about a mobile education unit,” Smith explained.

Smith embarked on a mission to make a traveling museum to take to local students and anyone else who wanted to learn about the history of the area. She first took it to the Conservancy Board and they loved the idea and Smith went to work on the task of trying to get the project off the ground.

The Nilz family, including Conservancy President Patrick Nilz and his wife Bobby, donated a 39-foot, Class A RV they had taken in trade at their business, All RV Service Center. They now had the wheels, but they still had a long way to go to have a museum on wheels.

“I was touched by Ora Mae Harn and her passion to serve the community, I caught that bug from her,” Nilz said.. “She told me ‘you need to save our history and tell the story to the community.’ I think it is important to tell the story of our town.”

Harn, a former mayor of the town, became the region’s unofficial historian until she founded the conservancy and enlisted a number of people to build the group. As her health declined in 2010, Nilz and Smith took up bigger roles in the group. When the woman known as the “Matriarch of Marana” passed away in June of that year, the members of the conservancy vowed to keep her dream alive.

The Heritage on Wheels project was one of those ways. They had the vehicle, now all they needed were funds.

Smith applied for a grant from the Tohono O’Odham Nation, which has a lot of interest in the history of the area as it applies to the tribe. Sure enough in the summer of 2013 they got the good news that they had received a grant for $28,000.

Other corporate sponsors have also stepped up, most notably Trico, Vulcan and Asarco Mining.

“Through the grant and private support of the community this thing will come alive,” said Nilz.

All RV Service is able to do much of the work at wholesale rates and went to work on tearing out the inside of the RV so that the conversion can begin.

One of the main challenges is versatility. The key to the project being successful is making the exhibits inside interesting to a variety of age groups, even those who have visited before.

“It has to be capable of changing the exhibits, because we want to keep it fresh,” Smith explained.

Ideally the mobile experience will work hand-in-hand with the exhibit room at the Town Complex, where displays would move between the two. Essentially the two would be two separate experiences with the common theme of Marana’s rich and varied history tying it together. They also hope to have a more permanent museum at the Marana Heritage Park and they hope the two can work hand-in-hand.

The bulk of the museum on wheels will be display area, with a small meeting area and an area where visitors can view some of the videos the Conservancy is having made. They currently have one of the DeAnza trail and another on the Surprising Marana Bus Tour. Future videos focusing on some of the historic families of the area are also in the works.

They have worked with Education Exchange to help plan the exhibits, and they stressed that exhibits need to be hands-on to keep younger visitors engaged.

They will eventually have a small bank of computers where shorter videos can play, as well as other interactive displays.

“For the children we have to keep it very dynamic, very interactive,” Smith said. “We have to also keep it interesting enough for adults.”

They are in the process of renovating the inside, changing it from a standard RV to a mobile museum. They are also re-scanning many of their historical photos and articles that are starting to age or yellow. They will clean them up and create new displays for both the mobile unit and the exhibit room.

The plan is to be able to tailor the exhibits inside the Heritage on Wheels to the audience. What works at an elementary school, might nor work for middle schoolers, which, in turn, would not be ideal for adults. They hope to have a mobile museum they can take to a wide variety of events, from schools to rotary meetings and everything in-between.

“We have to be able to easily change out the exhibits,” said Smith. “It has to be adaptable.”

Due to some of the rules related to the grant, Heritage on Wheels will be up and running by July, if not sooner. Since it will be an ever evolving project, the deadline has some flexibility. Right now they are still working on some final designs for the outside look of the RV, but for the most part the project is heading rapidly towards completion.

“I am so excited for this,” Smith admitted.

Smith got involved with the Conservancy from nearly the beginning, her friendship with founder Ora Mae Harn is what led her to the group and her role has steadily grown. She feels that the Heritage on Wheels is a great way to continue to bring her dear friends vision to life and reach a wider group of people to teach them about the varied history of the town and surrounding area.

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