By Lauren Valone
With his more than 35 years of experience in the museum field, Mark Hall-Patton will certainly have stories to share during his Keynote Address at the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting. In addition to 14 years as a Board member of the Nevada Museums Association where he served as President from 2000–2002 and 2008–2010, he has also served on the California Association of Museums and WMA boards. Mark is regularly seen on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars as a visiting expert. He has also appeared on American Restoration and Mysteries at the Museum.
In this brief interview, Mark gives readers a taste of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.
How are Las Vegas’s and Southern Nevada’s culture and museums unique?
Las Vegas and Southern Nevada have a unique history, which is presented in the museums here. Given a history, which includes unique foci, including Atomic Testing, Gaming, and a water table that brought settlers, the railroad, and eventually a large community, our museums tell this fascinating story. We Las Vegan museum professionals have to tell the story with a backdrop of massive advertising for alternatives to what we offer. We also have to realize that we do not have the resources to outshine the glitz and glamour of the strip, and must focus on our core stories to bring our visitors to the museums. One other point to make is that visitors to Las Vegas are normally not coming for a museum experience, so we have to recognize that when we reach out to them.
Many museums rely on tourism in addition to their local community. How does the Clark County Museum System approach both types of visitors?
The Clark County Museum uses every avenue possible to get the word out about the Museum. As we do not have an advertising budget, it is not possible to take out ads, so we are active in speaking to local groups. We also have the media access which comes from my being on Pawn Stars, and that drives both tourists and locals to the museum. We actively work with the Clark County School District to bring in school tours, and seek out any free source of advertising, including an active Facebook page and working with our Clark County Museum Guild supporters through their social media efforts. In terms of tourists, much of that is now driven by Pawn Stars who come in from 151 countries to visit and meet people from the show, including the museum administrator.
The Clark County Museum System consists of a 30-acre site covering pre-historic to modern times, and a collection of restored historic buildings in Las Vegas, Boulder City, Henderson and Goldfield. You are also the administrator for the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum and the Searchlight History Museum. What are some of your lessons learned when telling such an expansive story?
The stories often overlap and intersect, and we can use these intersections as a way to cross-pollinate between museums. We can interest visitors who arrive by air in the history of Clark County through the Aviation Museum, which can bring people to the County Museum, and if there, we can be sure they are aware of the Searchlight Museum. I also find that you have to bring the stories down to the personal level, using the story of a family or a house like the Henderson Townsite House to make accessible the greater story of World War II and its impact on Southern Nevada.
You have extensive experience consulting start-up museums, have served on association boards, and were even a past board member of the WMA. What advice do you have about developing strategic plans for museums?
I think it is necessary to be realistic in planning. At one point about 15 years ago, I sat my staff down for a five year planning effort, and started by saying that over the next five years we would not be getting any more staff, money or space—now what were we going to do with that time? The resultant document was a great plan and allowed us to accomplish quite a lot, both internally through directed effort, and externally by building up our recognition within County Government and the greater community. Planning should not be, in many cases, the “don’t worry about what we will need to accomplish this, just say what you think we should do” kind of document. Those tend to become great space holders on shelves, but seldom are accomplished.
Leadership is a very important topic among museum professionals. What advice do you have for becoming an effective leader?
Have a clear vision for your institution, and make sure you are actively and vocally following it. Listen to your staff, and make sure they understand and are part of that vision. Are you serving your community, or waiting for them to serve you (with more resources, space, etc.)? Is your staff aware of what their role should be with the community? Are you aware of what your staff is thinking? Leadership is not yelling or directing, it is making sure your staff is with you in the direction you are going, not getting lost or walking away. Always remember that leading in a void is rather ineffective.
Can you relate any of your experiences working on TV shows to working at a museum?
Working in museums brings a number of ethical challenges, which are somewhat magnified on television shows. Boards, staff, volunteers, visitors all can ask for efforts which are not in keeping with museum ethics at times, and television crews do this on a regular basis. It is important to know your boundaries, and not let yourself be pushed outside of what is appropriate. You are on your own in controlling what you are willing to do and whether what you are being asked to so is ethical, and you have to take that responsibility seriously.
How has working on TV shows changed they way you think about museum public/media relations, as well as how you interpret objects and stories for the public?
I don’t think it has changed it. My brother once described my role on Pawn Stars as “Mark on steroids” meaning that I have always understood artifacts as teaching tools, and now have a greater podium. I find now that I have a greater podium from which to speak, and a concomitantly greater responsibility to try at all times to get what I say right and within the bounds of good museum practice. On a different level, I am also aware of my role as presenter of the museum field and our work to the public, and often take the opportunity to explain why I say and do what I do, and how it is informed by my professional background.
Your book Asphalt Memories discusses the origins of street names in Clark County. What is the most interesting street name story in Las Vegas?
My favorites are two intertwined stories, that of Colanthe and Gilmary. When Larry G. McNeil of McNeil Construction, which built the Basic Magnesium plant and later built subdivisions and a number of other buildings, wanted to name a street for Florence Murphy, the first female vice-president of a scheduled airline in the United States, she refused. Eventually she said alright, but only under the condition that he use her real first name, which she hadn’t used since the age of five, and that he name a street for his real middle name which he never used. Hence, Colanthe and Gilmary Avenues. Florence was the person who told me the story initially, and it was one of the tales that led me to write the book. After the book came out, McNeil’s grandson visited me, and I told him the story. His response was “That was his middle name?”
What can WMA2014 attendees expect from your Keynote?
I hope they will have some laughs as well as some information that will help them think about whether they want to work with the media as I have. There are good and bad stories to being in the media, no matter how good the final product can be for your institution. I also hope they will find it at least enjoyable enough to stay awake, since it is first thing in the morning.
What is the most unexpected piece of information is about Las Vegas?
It is a very nice place to live and raise a family. My wife and I have raised two children here, a daughter who is a hydrogeologist in Reno and a son who is heading to graduate school this fall. There are wonderful historic and natural areas here, which are readily accessible, often within minutes of the Strip.
What would you like to say to attendees as they prepare for WMA 2014 in Las Vegas?
It may be warm and it may be cold. That may seem a little self-evident, but do check the weather forecasts before you pack. Take advantage both seeing the Strip and getting off the Strip. Among other things, the Las Vegas Strip, which is in Clark County not Las Vegas, is a unique walk (wear good shoes) and an All-America Road. And finally, plan to have a good time. We are pretty good at providing one.
Register for WMA2014 and attend Mark Hall-Patton’s 2014 Annual Meeting Keynote Address. Additionally, he is a panelists on two sessions—Revenue Diversification: Your Museum as an Event Venue or Film, and Photo Shoot Location and Collections That Can Kill: Safe Handling, Display, and Storage of Hazardous Materials and Weapons.
Learn more about the 2014 Annual Meeting here.
Lauren Valone is the Program Coordinator for the Western Museums Association. She has served on the Marketing Committee of the Waterworks Museum, and as Web Content Manager and Production Manager of Publishing and Social Media for an independent publisher. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, a BA in Studio Art, Photography from Lewis & Clark College, and has been published in and copy-edited for the Journal of Museum Education.