Mention the San Diego Museum of Man to someone and you might conjure images of mummies and dusty artifacts. Even its name has an old-fashioned feel, suggesting it’s a relic from a time before political correctness.

Micah Parzen, the anthropologist-turned-lawyer who runs the museum, wants to bring a wider focus to this iconic repository of the past. The museum’s board hired him in 2010 after it sacked the previous leader amid financial problems and a fuzzy mission.

Parzen, a La Jolla native, is turning the Balboa Park museum into a center where people learn to better understand each other. Among other things, it’s shifting its exhibits toward an emphasis on minorities and holding standing-room-only discussions about topics like the Japan tsunami and the Middle East protests.

In an interview, Parzen talked about the challenges of bringing the past into the present, the role of the museum’s popular mummies and his perspective on the messy debate over the future of Balboa Park. He also explained why the museum may soon feature a skateboard ramp and how a bunch of baby shoes provide insight into more than global footwear trends.

What were some of your major challenges when you came in?

The museum had been struggling for many years. There have been a lot of issues that needed repairing, and the museum didn’t have a strategic plan in place that was guiding it.

The board largely hired me based on a vision of how to completely reinvent the institution so it could play a different kind of role in the community than it had in its almost 100-year history. We’re really redefining and reinventing the museum.

We feel like we can’t be sustainable from a financial perspective if we continue to adopt the old-school museum model of collect, interpret and preserve, which had been our mission statement for many years.

We need to be a much more dynamic hub of activity. We’ve come up with a new vision of ourselves as part town hall, part center for cross-cultural exchange and part participatory museum. We have just recently adopted a new mission statement: Inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience.

Does that mean less focus on old stuff?

Possibly, but I think it means a different and innovative focus on old stuff. We are history, and the artifacts that we steward are our collective stories as a community, a region and humanity.

Are things changing now?

The process has started. A year ago we brought in an exhibit called Race: Are We So Different? It was exactly the kind of exhibit we want to do going forward, generating discussion about an often-neglected and swept-under-the-rug topic.

Coming down the pike are similar types of exhibits, like one called Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America that opens in late April. It’s not typically what you’d think of as being part of an anthropological museum. It explores the amazing positive impact that skateboarding has had on Native American communities and youths in particular.

We’re hoping to build a skateboard ramp and put it on the south balcony. We hope to bring in some professional skaters for demonstrations, including big names, and open the ramp to the public for free skate opportunities so you can come up and skate the Museum of Man.

What kind of exhibits will you avoid in the future that you might have launched in the past?

We will certainly trend away from purely artifact-based exhibits and toward the story of the artifacts and how they relate to how we make meaning out of the world as human beings.

An exhibit we’ll be having in the fall is called Access/Ability, a children’s exhibit about all the meaningful contributions that people with disabilities made despite their limitations. It’s really a walk-in-my-shoes kind of exhibit: you’ll be able to ride a wheelchair and go through a cityscape with a blindfold as if you’re blind, and other experiences along those lines.

It sounds like you’re adopting a focus on minorities.

Yeah, people who are disempowered and don’t have a voice of their own.

What does all this mean, for example, for the mummies that schoolchildren come here to see?

Those same dynamics were at work in ancient Egypt, which had a whole social structure that supported the rich and the elite, all the support staff that had their own experiences during that same time.

We know that people love mummies, but we want to tell the story a little differently, a more complete picture from varying perspectives.

How are the museum’s finances holding up?

We have a 3.5-year plan in which the highest priority is to get into the black so we’re not relying on reserves. But it doesn’t make sense to cut the institution in half to accomplish short-term financial goals.

We’re under-resourced and under-staffed, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we just stay above water. Instead, we’re on a trajectory of making investments in the institution that will cost some money in the short term.

There’s more focus these days on giving Native American remains back to tribes. How has that affected the human remains in your collection?

There’s a process under the law (that allows people to make) an inspection and site visit and then make a request. We do get requests from Native American groups, and they come in with a team and do their evaluation.

We have an officer who works half-time (handling human remain requests) and we do have returns at times.

The proposed plan to remake Balboa Park would have an especially big impact on your museum, since cars would no longer drive past your door each day. What do you think of the proposal, which is taking a lot of heat?

We came out very strongly in favor of the Plaza de Panama project early on. We feel like the net gain to the park will be extraordinary.

The Museum of Man would be a particular beneficiary because we’re a bit isolated on the west side of the park. If you’re standing out in the Plaza de California (in front of the museum) and you’re looking up at the dome and the California Tower, it is the most beautiful and romantic place in the park, and that’s true until a car comes whizzing past you and ruins your experience.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the lady who sculpted the statues of some of Balboa Park’s early advocates. She wondered why a parking garage should be built next to the organ pavilion if the idea is to rid the park of cars. What do you think about making the park car-free?

There may be other viable plans, but I’m not aware of any.

To me, what’s most important is that it happens. My concern is that nothing will happen because we can’t seem to get together and agree that there’s a viable plan out there.

Why not close the Cabrillo Bridge to cars instead of using it to bypass vehicles to a parking garage over by the organ pavilion?

There’s no significant parking on the west side, so most people would end up entering the park on Park Boulevard. They might not even see the Museum of Man, let alone know it exists and visit it.

What’s your favorite part of the museum?

It’s up in our Footsteps Through Time exhibit, which traces human evolution. It’s a small case that has a globe, and around the globe are shoes from babies from all sorts of different cultures.

It’s very simple, but it’s particularly powerful because of the message it sends, harkening back to this idea that although we’re different in many and interesting ways as cultural beings, we’re very much the same as human beings. That fits in with our reinvented mission of inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience.

Interview conducted and edited by Randy Dotinga. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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