New museum for a colorful New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico's story is as colorful and sweeping as its landscapes, but for the last century it has been told in dark, cramped quarters that could offer visitors little more than a glimpse of that history.

Now there's a storytelling venue worthy of the tale.

The new $44 million New Mexico History Museum opened last Sunday in downtown Santa Fe.

It's right behind the Palace of the Governors, the nearly 400-year-old adobe building on the Santa Fe Plaza that for the past century — even before statehood — has served as the state's history museum.

"The palace is a fabulous and important historical building, but it's not a history museum. It's a historic site," said Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum.

The adobe building's small, low-ceilinged rooms limited what could be exhibited, relegating much of the state's collection to boxes in areas that weren't climate controlled.

The new, 31/2; story, 96,000-square-foot museum has plenty of space for displays as well as state-of-the-art storage. And, with walls of windows, it's awash in light.

"That's what makes New Mexico New Mexico," said John McCarthy, the museum's deputy director.

New Mexico has been inhabited for thousands of years: Levine describes its story as spanning eras from the atlatl — an ancient spear-throwing device — to the atom bomb.

That long history and the state's complex cultural landscape are intriguing to many tourists. Last year, nearly two-thirds of the visitors to the Palace of the Governors were from out of state.

Until now, Levine said, they've lacked a place to get an overview of what's out there before they set out to explore New Mexico.

"I'd like to think of us as the gateway," she added.

The new museum's exhibits trace the state's chronology from the pre-colonial era to the present — starting with a re-creation of a cliff wall full of petroglyph-type handprints. Touch the three that are cast in metal, and you hear the words of Navajo, Apache and Pueblo Indians talking about their worlds.

Interactive displays are an important part of the museum's mix. They range from photo albums that visitors can quietly sit and page through, to a sophisticated, bilingual exhibit on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and made New Mexico a U.S. territory. Highlighted portions of the treaty link to interviews with historians.

In a room devoted to the Santa Fe Trail, kids can pick up and examine the stuff strewn around the replica of a broken-down covered wagon, and watch a film about trail life projected on the wagon's canvas side.

Sound is integral to the exhibits, whether it's the chirping of birds at dawn along the Camino Real, the centuries-old "royal road" to Mexico City, or arguments in Congress over New Mexico's bid for statehood.

"We want to be able to address the way everybody learns," McCarthy said.

While every state could tell a story of World War II, New Mexico's has some singular twists. Exhibits touch on the Bataan Death March, which included about 1,800 New Mexicans; the Navajo Code Talkers, some of whom came from the state; an internment camp in Santa Fe for Japanese Americans; and the Santa Fe building that served as the "front office" for the top-secret project to create the atomic bomb at nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The new museum features a 200-seat auditorium, a hands-on activities center for families, a terrace cafe and a 2,000-square-foot gift shop.

The first exhibit in a 5,700-square-foot gallery devoted to changing exhibitions will be "Fashioning New Mexico," culled from the museum's collection of nearly 4,000 costumes and accessories that date from the 1830s.

The new museum is an extension of the Palace of the Governors, and visitors can cross a footbridge on the museum's first level into the palace's courtyard.

In 1909, three years before statehood, the territorial Legislature established the Museum of New Mexico and designated the Palace of the Governors as its home. Built in 1610 as Spain's seat of government in what is now the American Southwest, the Palace of the Governors is billed as the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States.

The opening of the new museum will "free the palace to tell the story of those events that it's witnessed," Levine said.

On the Net: New Mexico History Museum: www.nmhistorymuseum.org

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