In Kanab, the local museum consists of a hall in a city office building. In Fillmore, the Territorial Statehouse museum has ample display and meeting space, but the doors and stairways of the historic building are too narrow to admit oversize art.
Rural museums are limited by space and money, explains Brian Crockett, director of the Utah Humanities Resource Center. In Utah, the majority of museums are either rural museums or small ethnic or specialty museums.It is Crockett's job to extend humanities programs (history, literature, philosophy, comparative religions, linguistics and more) to the widest possible audience. He's seen success with a variety of packaged programs, especially cardboard kiosk displays, book group services and speakers bureaus to augment exhibits, or lead film or literature discussions.
He calls it "recycling," the way a historian might get a grant from the Utah Humanities Council (UHC) to produce a public television program, and then Crockett's arm of the UHC would take the video and a discussion leader throughout the state.
Crockett loves bringing humanities to small towns.
"You get so much excitement out of rural Utah," he says. When the program is right - a book, film or display of history or art that speaks to people of their own lives - the discussion zings.
(Recently in Castledale, scholar Jan Frost lead a discussion of the book "Housekeeping," in which an eccentric Western heroine temporarily gives up her life of riding the rails to care for two orphaned children. The conversation was so lively at the library that night that when Frost excused herself to go to the ladies' room, several women followed her to talk to her over the stall.)
But one aspect of Crockett's work frustrates him. He realizes that some of America's most important treasures aren't available to 95 percent of the museums in Utah.
Few small museums can afford to pay $5,000 to the Smithsonian Institute to rent a traveling display, Crockett says. And even if they could afford it, they wouldn't have enough room to show it off. They probably wouldn't be able to meet the Smithsonian's extensive security requirements either.
This basic unfairness of all this bothered Crockett. "SITES (the Smithsonian Institutes Traveling Exhibition Service) has been in business for at least 40 years," he says. They've yet to discover Utah.
"The topics of their exhibitions are narrow in focus, Eastern-oriented, or with Southern themes. They do a poor job of addressing issues in the West." And no job at all in bringing their exhibits to small local museums.
Crockett, an Albuquerque native who came to the University of Utah for English literature and stayed to marry and go to graduate school, has been with UHRC for six years now. As he got to know more about the needs of museum directors around the state, he began complaining to his counterparts at the Smithsonian.
"I complained quite a bit. So they called my bluff. Told me to put together a proposal." Crockett and Carol Harsh, the SITES liaison to state humanities councils, came up with a plan to reach small exhibitors.
First they did a preliminary study in 12 states, asking the preferences of local museums. Now, and for the next four years, Crockett will work on a pilot project - a tour of a scaled-down Smithsonian exhibit.
The exhibit is called "Produce for Victory: Posters on the Homefront." The selection of WWII posters includes Rosie the Riveter and other images from the early 1940s. The exhibit will go to Oregon, Utah, Georgia, Illinois and West Virginia.
Humanities Resource Centers in all these states have experience working in rural areas, Crockett explains, working with the specific needs of their audiences. The needs vary from state to state, he explains. In Utah, rural towns are isolated by geography. In West Virginia they are isolated more by economics, he says.
Crockett already has ideas about how the posters could be used to stir discussion in Utah towns. Kanab might want an to combine this exhibit with an oral history project, he says. An even more specific focus might be on getting the oral history of women who worked in the war industries.
Based on what happens with this tour, the Smithsonian may try to find funding to scale down other exhibits.
Crockett likes to tell Utah museum directors that he can help them with any programming idea. "We are only limited by our imaginations," he says. If portable, affordable Smithsonian exhibits ever became available in great number, there would indeed be few limits on Utah's smaller museums.