Air-Minded: Leaving PASM

Monday, February 11, 2020: at Pima Air and Space Museum, a dramatic shift in the weather. Three photos, taken at 9 AM, noon, and 2:30 PM:




Photos which symbolically capture the day—my final one at PASM.

I’ve written many Air-Minded posts about my work at the museum. If you’ve read the more recent ones you know I’ve been frustrated by an increasingly toxic work atmosphere.

In recent years dozens of experienced volunteer docents have hit their limit and quit. For the past two to three years I’ve been telling myself that my love of talking to visitors about aviation and aircraft outweighed the increasing unpleasantness of working there, but things came to a head and I knew the affair was over.

I feel relieved, mostly, but at the same time at a bit of a loss … working at the museum had become part of my identity. I’ll get over it, and am already looking for something else to do in my retirement years. One of the benefits of volunteering at PASM is a lifetime membership with free admission, so whenever I feel the need to commune with my beloved old planes the museum will still be there.

I held off addressing my reasons for leaving because doing so might come across as sour grapes or whining. I hope readers won’t take it that way, because I think there are serious issues there, and it isn’t just me.

In 2011, when I started taking visitors on walking tours of the aircraft in PASM’s exhibit hangars, the museum had a fantastic volunteer program, possibly one of the best in the business. Volunteers ran it, with minimal staff supervision. Many if not most docents had backgrounds in military, commercial, and general aviation; the older ones had flown combat in Vietnam, Korea, even WWII. Docents could tailor tours to match their own expertise (as a fighter pilot, I naturally highlighted military and combat aircraft), develop their own scripts, and share war stories.

A highlight of the volunteer program was education and professional development. We contributed articles to a quarterly newsletter. Volunteers set up and maintained an excellent research library, with military and civil aircraft manuals, plus books and videos on every aircraft in the collection. We ran a monthly presentation program, open to the general public, museum staff, and fellow volunteers. Presentation dates were booked a year in advance (the audience for my own presentation on the F-15 Eagle numbered more than 100). Smithsonian Institution staff would fly in from DC to tape our presentations and interview the speakers about their flying experience afterward … my own presentation is in the Smithsonian’s archives.

Volunteer docents work in teams. When I started, PASM had a team of greeters to welcome visitors at the museum entrance, point out any special events scheduled for the day, and give them maps to the museum hangars and grounds. My team led narrated hour-long walking tours. Other teams roamed the hangars, there to answer visitors’ questions. Another team, one I joined later, drove trams around the grounds, telling visitors about the outdoor displays; another manned the tour buses taking visitors to the Boneyard; another was on call to come in and guide school and other contracted group tours. Docents regularly met with aircraft restoration volunteers, who kept us up to date on which new acquisitions were being prepared and when the public would be able to see them. We were an important part of the museum’s mission. We were valued.

Starting two to three years ago, the attractions of being a volunteer docent … the professional development and, more importantly, the sense of being valued … began to disappear. The director dictated the closure of the volunteer library, eventually firing the docent who maintained it. The presentation program was terminated. The quarterly newsletter, with its volunteer articles, went away. Restoration was declared off-limits, its activities suddenly secret. Staff made it clear volunteers were no longer welcome in the administration building, and were only to communicate with management through a single staff representative. They eliminated the greeters. They shut down the walking tours and let those volunteers go. They fired the Boneyard docents and replaced them with a couple of paid guides who have to read from a script. They eliminated the school program … teachers still bring classes to the museum, but they no longer get a guide.

Docent teams had volunteer team leaders. They’re gone too. Today, paid museum staff with little to no aviation experience directly supervise the few remaining docent teams. The last good docent gig at PASM was being a tram tour guide, but that too is been degraded. Staff imposed a strict 45-minute time limit on tram tours, increased the number of daily tours and demanded individual docents drive and narrate as many as four a day (some, on short-manned days, do even more). Tram docents, like the Boneyard guides, now have to follow a script and can no longer tailor tours to visitors’ interests.

Persistent stories, passed from volunteer to volunteer, say the toxicity originates with the museum’s executive director, who is hostile to volunteers. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that whenever I and other volunteers would encounter the director on the museum grounds, he would never say hi, never look at us, never acknowledge us in any way. I can also attest to increasingly frequent “be-no” messages from museum staff (lower down the chain, never from the director himself), instructing volunteers which areas of the museum are newly off limits, which staff members can be spoken to and which not, threatening firing and revocation of hard-earned life memberships if rules are violated. Even without rumors of the director’s hostility toward volunteers, the message was clear.

The final straw for me? A staff member telling me I couldn’t use a restroom during the five minutes I had between back-to-back tram tours a few Mondays back. That restroom, she told me, was now for staff only.

I’m a life member of the museum, a membership earned through volunteer work. I value the museum and my membership, and will continue to visit, primarily to photograph and research the aircraft I write about in Air-Minded blog posts. As for volunteering and interacting with museum visitors, I miss it but am not losing sleep over it. The frustrations and unpleasantness of working at PASM had come to outweigh the rewards, and I was past due to follow the many experienced colleagues who have peeled off over the last few years. I fully expect members of the tram team will soon be told to shut up and drive, restricted to steering and maintaining a steady speed of 8 mph while a recorded narration plays over the tram speakers … and when that happens, I’ll have even more company in exile.

Good to get all that off my chest, take it how you will.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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