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Deer Valley Rock Art Center gets an extreme makeover

November 16, 2010

After 15 years of wear and tear from Mother Nature and tens of thousands of curious visitors, the Deer Valley Rock Art Center is getting a much-needed facelift.

The center – managed by the Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – is charged with preserving the largest collection of petroglyphs in the Phoenix area. It has grown into a popular destination and event venue for all ages. Its focus is educating the public about the cultural and archaeological significance of the Hedgpeth Hills site and serving as a museum, wildlife preserve and repository for the American Rock Art Research Association library, collections and archives.

But the center’s museum building, designed by notable local architect Will Bruder, was recently in need of its own preservation.

Floodwaters soaked a portion of the exhibit area, making the safe display of artwork and artifacts impossible. The poured concrete wall slabs were beginning to separate at the joints. The final straw came when a rattlesnake made its way through such a crack and took up residence in the exhibition area.

Now, thanks to grants from the Arizona Humanities Council and the Phoenix Suns Charities, the building is rising like a Phoenix to emerge anew.

The renovations will continue through fall 2011 but will not affect visitor hours. Everything from aesthetics to cultural content is being addressed to strengthen the museum and make it more engaging.

Technology will play a large part in the redesign, with the inclusion of computers and smart boards. Among planned innovations is a large, interactive wall screen that will allow visitors to search for specific shapes and themes among the more than 1,500 petroglyphs of Hedgpeth Hills. Graduate students from ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation are crafting designs for the feature, which will illuminate the search results on a big-screen image of the petroglyph hillside.

A new orientation theater will feature videotaped feedback from community visitors, tribal members and scholars reflecting on the role of the Deer Valley Rock Art Center

Large-scale murals are being created by a local illustrator, working with City of Phoenix Archaeologist Todd Bostwick, to depict how the ancient peoples of Hedgpeth Hills lived.

Kim Arth, the center’s executive director, said, “It is important to me that visitors see this place as a site that was created and used by people. Looking at the petroglyphs and reading plaques may not fully convey that. But visitors will be able to look at the murals and see people cooking and eating, hunting, using tools, children playing. I think it will make the experience more meaningful and relatable.”

The update about which Arth is most excited is the creation of the Family Exploration Room funded by the Phoenix Suns Charities. She said, “This will be the heart of the museum, bringing families together, introducing them to paleoart and the fascinating field of anthropology.” The room will include floor puzzles, books and a computer with interactive games.

“We will also offer information on the native plants and animals in ways that will be appealing to adults as well as kids. I intend to spend a lot of time in there, learning,” she added with a laugh.

While the center is heavily family oriented, it is also a research facility. Currently, center affiliates – including Arleyn Simon, director of ASU’s Archaeological Research Institute – are helping document rock art at other sites, like Perry Tank in the Agua Fria National Monument, about 70 miles north of Phoenix.

After the refurbishment, Arth will be able to bring in more loaned items and art pieces and bring back the center’s previously displayed artifacts, which were placed for safekeeping with ASU’s Archaeological Research Institute, also a part of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

The center will unveil preliminary renovations on November 20, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the 6th Annual American Indian Heritage Festival. The family friendly event will feature performances by the Yellow Bird Apache Hoop Dancers, a Navajo storyteller, a rock art lecture by a Hopi archaeologist, fry bread and a bead-bracelet-crafting station for kids. Native American artists will sell their handmade items and give demonstrations.

In the spring, the Deer Valley Rock Art Center will host the Statewide Archaeology Expo, a two-day event in collaboration with the State Historic Preservation Office and 40 other organizations. Among the planned activities are an agave roast and mock archaeology digs.

Arth explained, “I hope, through the renovations, the message gets out that the community has a stake in the ASU Deer Valley Rock Art Center as a place of exploration and discovery and that we can preserve it together.”

The Deer Valley Rock Art Center is located at 3711 W. Deer Valley Rd. in Phoenix. For more information, call 623-582-8007, or visit