Curation, Research, and Teaching: Characterizing Arthur Vokes’ Career at the Arizona State Museum

Vokes discusses objects with interested visitors at an ASM open house.

By Kathryn MacFarland, Ph.D., Manager of the Archaeological Repository, Arizona State Museum

I have the honor and pleasure to tell you a little bit about Arthur Vokes. As most in the archaeological community are aware, Arthur retired from his position as the first Curator and Manager of the Archaeological Repository Collections at the Arizona State Museum (ASM) in September 2020. Arthur’s career at ASM has been multi-faceted and he has made a significant impact on our institution. In writing this essay, I was faced with the challenge of characterizing an impressive career. After a lot of thought, I think an apt metaphor to describe Arthur’s career is a fugue – a single composition that is built from many themes that results in a complex and dynamic piece. For this purpose, I have highlighted three of the themes to which I can speak and that I know have been very important in Arthur’s life: (1) ASM; (2) relationships with staff, students, and the community; and (3) research.

Theme 1: The Arizona State Museum
It is difficult to overstate the impact Arthur has had at ASM over the last 30 years. Arthur began his tenure at ASM in 1980, working for the museum’s Cultural Resource Management Division (CRMD), conducting survey and excavations (e.g., the Las Colinas, Tucson Aqueduct, ANAMAX-Rosemont, and Salt-Gila Aqueduct projects), and managing the CRMD Archaeological Laboratory, preparing collections generated as a result of these projects for curation. The ASM Archaeological Repository was formalized as a curation facility for collections generated by external projects in 1990, and Arthur was selected to be the first Manager/Curator. Arthur has been a teacher, a mentor, a researcher, and a valued colleague, as well as a wise supervisor of countless students and members of the avocational archaeological community. He has presented ASM’s collections and his research to the public by co-curating a major ASM exhibit, Set in Stone: 2000 Years of Gem and Mineral Trade in the Southwest.

Vokes in the archaeological repository.

Arthur is an expert in the archaeomalacology of the U. S. Southwest and pre-contact ornamentation. He has trained many of those who currently analyze archaeological shell in Arizona. He is also an expert on museum curation, especially as this relates repositories. In his 1995 Master’s thesis, The Role of Collections Management in Research, Arthur argued that ASM should organize its collections by provenience, with secondary consideration given to material class (with notable exceptions, for example, in the Pottery Vault) instead of by types derived through archaeological research. This recommendation was adopted and this course correction has made databases easier to create and maintain, while ensuring that the collections we curate are as accessible as possible. Arthur has continually sought ways to improve the way the Archaeological Repository collections at ASM are managed, keeping up with major changes in technology and making recommendations to ASM leadership regarding the incorporation of newly developed tools. I think that all of us at ASM appreciate what Arthur has done for our institution and what he continues to do, even in retirement.|

Theme 2: Staff, Students, and the Community
One does not need to interact with Arthur for long before realizing that he really loves to teach and mentor people who seek out the knowledge and advice he can give. In the 19 years I have known him, I have never found the limit of his patience when fielding questions about topics ranging from artifact material classes, to excavation methods how to document them in an archive, to collections management practices, to the best way to build shelving, and even issues tangentially related to the discussion at hand. My primary relationship with Arthur has been as a student, which over time has transitioned to co-author and colleague. Throughout all of this, Arthur has never hesitated to offer his guidance and engage in spirited debate/discussion, which is something I have always deeply appreciated about him. Arthur has given students the chance to learn as much as they wanted at ASM. Many of the student friends I have made in the Repository have gone on to careers in archaeology and museum curation, and if you were to start chatting with them about the "good old days" when we were all working in the Repository together, they would inevitably ask "How is Art doing?" and remark "He is so awesome!" I could not presume to fully express the impact that Arthur has had on fellow ASM personnel, former students, and members of the larger archaeological community. In preparation for this article, I circulated a survey, asking current and former ASM employees, members of the cultural resource management community, and former students to answer a few questions about how they came to know Arthur and the things they had learned from him. The results (Table 1) illustrate a few things: (1) Arthur maintains relationships with people he has worked with on the decadal scale; (2) he and his wife, Dale, throw parties that are not to be missed; and (3) he makes a long-lasting impact on those he meets. If you have personally interacted with Arthur, the results in Table 1 should come as no surprise!

Table 1: Survey responses from ASM staff, former students, and members of the cultural resource management community

Question 1: How long have you known Arthur Vokes?  
1-5 years 7.1 percent of respondents                                                                                                                                            
6-10 years 21.4 percent of respondents
11-20 years 28.6 percent of respondents
21-30 years 35.7 percent of respondents
31+ years 7.1 percent of respondents


Question 2: How do you know him?  
I worked with him at ASM 85.7 percent of respondents
He analyzed shell for me 7.1 percent of respondents
He taught me how to analyze shell 21.4 percent of respondents
I am a regular at his and Dale's awesome parties 57.1 percent of respondents
I drink beer with him 42.9 percent of respondents
I helped him move boxes and/or build shelving 42.9 percent of respondents
I was a student volunteer or intern in the Repository 35.7 percent of respondents
I learned about collections management from him 35.7 percent of respondents
I learned how to catalog artifacts from him 35.7 percent of respondents
I learned about databases from him 28.6 percent of respondents
I know him for another reason, and I'd like to share:

“One of my first friends when coming to Tucson in 1984.”

“We were also in classes together my first year of grad school. I consider him my second dad.”

“I've been married to him for 27 years!”

“He's dad #2”


Question 3: Which animal do you think would be Arthur Vokes’ patronus?
          Brown Bear
          Golden Eagle
          Wise Owl
          Norwegian Forest Cat
          Whatever that piñata is in Room 101


Question 4: What skills or life lessons did you learn from Arthur?

          "Quiet reverence."

          "I learned everything from curation to not taking life so seriously. Art taught us that we are constantly students and constantly teachers and should always be in a constant state of a little fun. Art taught me to analyze artifacts, build shelves, write a resume, curate a collection, and live archaeology."

          "The life lesson Art continues to teach me, through his life, is to attempt to remain calm, cool, and collected, even when faced with what seems to be insanity."

          "Hiring good people pays dividends in many, many ways, for many, many years."

          "Attention to detail, patience (although I am still practicing that one), kindness, how to use tools"

          "Art gave me my very first museum job at the ASM repository when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to get a Master's in Museum Studies and have been working in the museum field ever since!"

I also asked survey responders if there was anything they would like to say to Arthur as he embarks on his retirement. I received the following responses, which I would like to directly quote:

"Congratulations, Art! Thank you for giving me my first job in the museum sector. That repository job changed the trajectory of my career path. I hope you enjoy retirement and the opportunity to work on your own projects!" -Karen Hayes

"What can I say that hasn't already been said Art? You taught me not only how to do the job in my career path, but also how to do it well. You taught me how to work toward my passion. As a young adult, I remember thinking, "Working for a place for 10 years seems so long!". However, my eight and a half years went by so fast and with such fond memories that I feel truly blessed. Thank you for always being there to support me and push me, and for being a very dear friend. Now, hopefully, you can analyze all the shell you want without interruptions (don't tell people where your desk is!)."  -Erika Heacock

"Art, sometimes the best days at work in the repository were when you were grooving along to Queen, teaching me Southwestern pottery typology. You taught us all so much in the repository and we soaked up as much as we could (especially learning the fact that you are a human library)! Thank you for being the best boss and teacher!" -Sara Luois

"I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to experience Arthur's sense of humor, his hospitality, his wisdom, and his generosity in sharing his incredible knowledge of the archaeology of our region, as well as the history and workings of the Arizona State Museum." -Patrick Lyons

"He was a terrific colleague and I greatly valued his perspectives and institutional knowledge." -Jim Watson


Theme 3: Researcher
Arthur is a well-known researcher. Like his parents, Harold Vokes (malacologist and paleontologist), and Emily H. Vokes (malacologist), Arthur is a prolific author of technical reports, book chapters, conference papers, and journal articles. If you were to query ASM’s online library catalog with his name, 112 titles would come back in the search (so far)! I think it is safe to say that he has analyzed the majority of shell assemblages from Arizona and his dataset extends into New Mexico and Nevada. His dedication to the research of short-, and long-distance trade networks as documented by shell and small ornaments has led to the re-analysis of notable and under-published assemblages, such as material from Snaketown and the “Magician’s Burial” from Ridge Ruin, near Flagstaff.

Everyone who has worked with Arthur knows that he has essentially maintained two jobs. By day, he has been the Manager/Curator of the Archaeological Repository. In his off hours he is in his home office, analyzing a steady stream of shell artifact assemblages from archaeological sites around the state. Arthur will continue to have lab space at ASM, which he plans to use to work on his “Magnum Opus,” among other planned projects. Now that he doesn’t have to worry about his day job anymore, Arthur has been tapped to contribute his expertise to various projects in the Southwest. Arthur will not be done with his research anytime soon, and I am sure he will continue to train the next generation of shell and prehistoric ornament analysts.

Fugue: The Themes Come Together
I have known Arthur and have worked for him my entire adult life. He has been one of my mentors and has guided me as I have learned the ins and outs of collections management, conducted my own research on artifact assemblages from the Southwest and offered great advice when I took on the task of analyzing museum collections from north central Eurasia for my dissertation research. Arthur has cultivated an environment in the Archaeological Repository such that learning, preserving archaeological resources in ASM’s care, making collections available for research, and maintaining high standards are valued and prioritized. As we pick up the baton in the in-perpetuity curation relay race, I, and the rest of the Repository crew know we are standing on the shoulders of a giant, and we will strive every day to live up to the example you have set.

Arthur, I don’t think I can fully express how happy I am that you are embarking on your retirement from your day job, and that you will get the chance to focus on your research, plan awesome trips, listen to your records, and hang out with Dale, your pets, and your buddies. Retiring from ASM may mean that one theme in this fugue is over, but the fugue will only get more interesting and fun. I can’t wait to see what you do next!


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