Norma JeanThe Heard Museum is world-renowned, and for nearly 50 years, Norma Jean Coulter has been donating her valuable time to this precious repository.
By Keridwen Cornelius
A museum, to most people, is a series of exhibits. To Norma Jean Coulter, it's an extended family. Since 1962, Coulter has volunteered at the Heard Museum, guiding tours, serving as guild president for two years, and helping foster the museum's growth from a family run affair to a world-class destination.
Despite being a history buff, Coulter would never have guessed she'd devote so much of her life to the Heard. Born in Tucson, she studied history at the University of Arizona, where she met her husband, Rufus, then a law student. After graduation, they moved to Phoenix, and it was there that a friend nudged Coulter into volunteering. "She said, 'You're the wife of a prominent attorney, you have to get involved,' " Coulter recalls.
The friend ushered her around cultural institutions brimming with sophisticated ladies dressed to the nines. Their last stop was the Heard Museum, where, in addition to the hats-and-gloves entourage, there were women in Levis and traditional Indian dresses. Coulter had found her place. "I was also comfortable there because it was about history," she says.
In 1962, the museum looked nothing like it does today, she says. It was a sleepy little place where fourth-graders took field trips to ogle a mummy and a lineup of shrunken heads, and then they'd buy the "recipe" for shrunken heads in the gift shop. (Visit today and you'll see perhaps the finest collection of Indian artifacts, jewelry and contemporary art in the nation, but no shriveled bodies.)
In those days, Coulter and other guild members traveled around the state scouting out talented native dancers to perform at events. Now, the best dancers in the country come to them. Guild members also hosted Indian artists in their homes. "It was a family affair, a bonding experience," she says. Though visiting artists now stay in hotels, the family atmosphere continues. "They're still guests in our home," she says. Home, of course, being the museum.
As the museum evolved, so did its volunteers. "In the '60s and '70s, women came to the museum to help," Coulter says. "Today, there's a tremendous desire for learning."
Coulter's own thirst for knowledge and love of her home state prompted her to join the Arizona Historical Society, where she served as president from 2004 to 2006. She also taught Arizona history and government to junior high students.
You can still find Coulter volunteering at the Heard Museum shop, likely wearing Indian jewelry and Levis. If you do, be sure to ask her about the early days of the museum's fair, when they gave away a burro, or anything else about Arizona history. "I'm very much an Arizonan," she says. "Working at the museum gives me the chance to showcase and talk about Arizona."