For the past three decades, the has held exhibits honoring the city’s heritage, like a show about the local dairy industry or the city's football team, the Leghorns.
But in 2008, the museum’s leadership was taken over by Joe Noriel, a 45-year-old former member of the tree and parks committees, who brought a radically new vision to the institution.
Since then, Noriel has launched a massive revamp of the museum, putting on shows on provocative topics such as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and more recently an “End of Days” series, where academics spoke about the history of Doomsday predictions.
The trouble, say some, is that most of these exhibits have nothing to do with Petaluma and cost much more money than they bring in, resulting in a steady loss of revenue for the museum. In fact, the museum lost $28,000 last fiscal year and $10,000 the year before, according to financial documents, and has used reserve money to make up the difference.
That has prompted worry that the historical museum, , may soon run out of money.
“If you have deep pockets, you can do what you want,” said Susan Villa, who served as the museum president for more than a decade until stepping down in 2008. “But they don’t. And if something is not supported, you can’t go on just spending money.”
Noriel defends the recent shows, including the museum’s first ever Smithsonian exhibit, , as visionary and needed to increase both attendance and membership at the museum. The exhibit cost $25,000, but took in only $8,400 from entrance fees. According to Noriel, about 2,500 visitors saw the show, much less than some of the others the museum has put on.
But to Noriel, hosting a Smithsonian exhibit was as much about creating high expectations as breaking even.
“In my mind, when you’re a business and you’re just starting out, you want to get a reputation, you want to get visible,” Noriel said. “If I’m sitting here with $200,000, but no one is coming through the door, I’m not doing my job...We are always thinking, what’s going to pop?”
Noriel says he isn’t surprised at the criticism because the museum is taking a radically new direction from the past. But measuring accomplishment based on dollars alone doesn’t paint a full picture, according to him, and he points to increased interest from the community, from more people wanting to serve on the museum's board to increased memberships and attendance.
“People say, ‘What did you make on the Vietnam exhibit?’, but how do you measure the impact of the exhibit when you see a veteran crying or a kid who had a chance to speak with an astronaut (during the Beyond lecture series)?”
Check out a slideshow about some of PHM's past exhibits on the right
Many critics interviewed for the story did not want to go on the record for fear of antagonizing relationships with Noriel and other museum board members. But they also said they worried that Noriel, who doesn’t have a background in museum work, was making decisions based more on splashy content instead of substance.
“Joe thinks it’s fun and exciting, but excitement is not enough and it’s eating through the principal really fast,” said a source familiar with the museum’s financial situation. She also criticized the museum’s decision to allow veterans to enter last fall’s Vietnam War exhibit for free.
“That’s like Disneyland letting kids in for free. It’s your primary audience...it doesn’t work.”
Ted Feldman, treasurer of the board, said the museum is aware of the expenditures and is working to fundraise more money to support its vision, including by having an estate sale this December. The board has also recently adopted policies and budgeting procedures to not use the reserve account. Still, he says, if the museum wants to have relevance for Petaluma residents, it needs to spend money.
“If it’s only an archive to store old things that represent the history of Petaluma, that’s one thing,” Feldman said. “But if we want to offer something to the cultural life of Petaluma, it has to go beyond the historical artifacts.”
Yet there are many in Petaluma who believe that historical artifacts are vital and must be painstakingly preserved. And they are outraged that the museum has already sold some items and is planning on selling more at the upcoming estate sale.
“How are they deciding which items to sell and which to keep?” said another source familiar with the situation. "Some people are so afraid the items will be sold off they don't even want to donate."
Skip Sommer, a real estate agent and local historian who joined the board in July, said that the museum would notify all donors of a potential sale to see if they are in agreement.
“We are talking about small, unimportant items that are duplicates and that we don’t have a lot of room upstairs for (in the museum’s permanent collection),” Sommer said. “It will be a terrific fundraiser and want to turn it into an annual event.”
Part of what makes reining in the museum’s finances difficult is that it operates with little oversight from the city. The museum building is owned by the city, but its activities are only regulated by the board. And depending on who you ask, the board, in its present configuration, is filled with people who have no museum experience and who are more interested in flashy shows like the current pirates exhibit than those that honor the city’s heritage.
“In the old days, the docents could talk about the exhibits,” said Marshall West, a former treasurer of the board who stepped down in 2006, but remains involved in the museum. “Now they can’t get docents to work in the museum because they can’t relate to it…It’s what I call the death spiral, if it starts to go down, it goes down fast.”
Others point to the fact that the museum is now spending more money on advertising, something that used to be paid out of the city's transient occupancy taxes, and closed its gift shop. Another fact that hasn't escaped notice is that Noriel's wife, Natalie, was keeping the museum's books and received $1,150 for it, according to financial statements. Noriel says that his wife does not make decisions about where the money is going and is no longer handling the accounting.
"The only reason she was doing it was because no one else would," he said.
Noriel invites anybody with concerns about the museum's direction to bring them to the museum's board meetings, he said. And despite the criticism, he feels strongly that the museum has a duty to provide Petaluma residents with thought-provoking exhibits.
"I think we have an obligation to the people walking through here to make a difference in their lives and maybe that's crazy," Noriel said. "People can say whatever they want about me, but that veteran that comes in and tells me that the Vietnam exhibit changed his life, that's what it's about and the second step is how we're going to keep it going."
What do you think about the museum's new direction and its financial situation? Are you worried? Or is this just the cost of the new vision?