Streak, Stroll Or Study Permanent Exhibits Can Be Absorbed In Many Ways

Date May 19, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Publication The Santa Fe New Mexican

Categories Local News & Sports

From the moment a visitor pushes open the 10-foot tall, wooded doors into the permanent exhibits of the 96,000-square-foot New Mexico History Museum, the staff wants you to touch, fondle, examine and play. Please bring your children, let them point and run and guide you. Debate heatedly about what you see, comment on what you don't. But whatever you do, do not treat this new museum as you have been told to treat history: out of reach, out of touch, sealed behind glass and meant to be experienced passively. ;A good museum communicates two ways,; said Sujit Tolat, an associate with Gallagher & Associates, which designed the exhibits. She collaborated with the museum's staff to create a technologically modern and broadly accessible exhibition design. ;The museum has to be a catalyst for dialogue, not a way to ram information down people's throats,; Tolat said. ;You have to personalize the information you present and contextual it in a contemporary sense.; Or, ;form follows function,; elaborated museum deputy director John McCarthy. ;What did we need to tell this story? New Mexico's history is a hell of a good story and whatever we needed to tell the story guided our design.; For the museum and its collaborators, who, aside from Gallagher, include Second Story, responsible for the touch-sensitive computer interfaces throughout the museum, and PBS station KNME, which helped mold the museum's visual and aural spaces, storytelling does manifest fully formed and salient. ;When we design a museum, our goal is to put the visitor in the driving seat,; Tolat said. ;You can't just glue a book to the walls. You have to ask if the visitor will get it.; That becomes especially difficult when this museum aims to appeal to no set demographic, attempting to enthuse the young and old, visitor and local, the highly informed or merely curious. To speak to all those audiences at once, the designers split visitors into three broad types: streakers (harried, or just breezing through), strollers (most visitors, nibbling on information here and there), and scholars (fact-checking every detail and obscure label). ;If you tell a story from enough viewpoints, everyone will resonate to a different element,; said museum director Fran Levine. ;You don't dumb anything down, but you allow the audience to choose their level of story.; For the museum's developers to achieve their mission of conveying New Mexico history as the accumulated personal narratives of its diverse and at times conflicting participants, they created a concert of innovative media technology and time-tested museum grandeur. Textual information will be layered, with the most pertinent information on the top in the largest type, dwindling down the wall into more obscure but no less intriguing detail. The museum's permanent exhibits are divided into six thematic zones split between two floors, guiding visitors from New Mexico's largely unrecorded prehistory up into the modern day. A summarizing timeline will run throughout for people who simply want to scan the larger picture. Most exhibits include an interactive aspect that encourages physical interaction between visitor and museum, some form of computer-based multimedia, whether that be shifting, scrollable maps or audio oral-history listening stations. The museum, even for all the information it contains, is designed to be open, bright, spacious. The first thing visitors will see behind those massive entrance doors are many brightly colored hands plastered on the walls. In this opening section, Beyond History's Record, the hands, when touched, play selections of Jack Loeffler's oral history, the voices from the hands of New Mexico's Native Americans reflecting on their conceptions of homeland and connection with this earth. This section, explained Erica Garcia, the museum's senior curator of education, is designed to explain the belief systems that existed before the arrival of the Spanish, but also to prompt the visitor with the expectation that this museum will not declare a singular conclusion or make sweeping generalizations. Instead, the museum will offer compelling stories and create the space for sundry and diverse first-person narratives to collide with and contextualize each other. The next thematic section, The Far Northern Frontier, deals with the early Spanish expeditions into New Mexico: Oñate's first contact with Native Americans and the subsequent construction of religious missions and the mass conversions that followed. The corridor stretching on through the museum details 1680 Pueblo Revolt and the expulsion of the Spanish. Along the wall visitors will be able to touch and scroll through an interactive electronic rendering of the Palace's famous Segesser hides, tapping here and there to access additional information on the hide itself and the world it portrays. After the resettlement by Spanish, the museum speaks of ;how strangers became neighbors,; in Garcia's words, how they came together and worked together, and sometimes how they clashed as well. This leads into the third thematic area, Linking Nations, which deals with New Mexico's journey out of Spanish rule into Mexican control and later through war into U.S. hands. The section also elucidates the legacy of New Mexico's traders and mountain men, and the role they played in development of famous trade routes such as the Santa Fe and Spanish trails. A life-sized covered wagon, replete with more than 100 accurate replications of period tools, weapons and technology, forms the center of the exhibit. One of the museum's more than 1,200 ;artifakes,; as the museum's staff refer to them, the wagon and its ersatz accouterments, are designed to allow people, especially children, easily bored with endless reams of dates and facts, to sensually experience the relics of history. ;There is a quality to having the object, touching it,; said Caroline Lajoie, the museum's senior exhibition designer. ;There is a preciousness to touching, a closeness that we wanted.; ;Objects like the ones we've replicated help give warmth and context to a story,; McCarthy agreed. He dismissed as dated the idea that a museum can simply display the physical remains of history and think it has told the story of a time or a people or an event. ;The artifacts complement the story, but they aren't the story. ;We're competing against the age of content of demand -- the Internet, iPods, cell phones,; McCarthy said. ;People expect immediacy. What we created in this museum is a dance between the cutting edge of technology and the need to see things physically. We have no ideal visitor and people learn in so many ways, so how do we speak to all of them? The museum is an amalgam of those old and new ways.; In the fourth exhibit area, Becoming the Southwest, the museum moves into New Mexico's formative and fitful years as a United States territory, punctuated with gunfights, rebellions, the Civil War and all the social changes the railroads brought, including the East Coast artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Will Shuster and Mabel Dodge Luhan. At this point, the visitors will spill outside the ground-floor exhibit space and can either descend into the continuing historical narrative or climb the grand staircase into the museum's upper floor, housing a café, meeting space and temporary exhibit space. The first rotating exhibit is a clothing collection, Fashioning New Mexico. Following the stairs downward, visitors will come across the museum's 210-seat auditorium and its adjacent mezzanine plastered with relics of New Mexico's emerging tourist economy, including generous attention to the story of Englishman and Southwest-tourism entrepreneur Fred Harvey. The mid-sized auditorium, designed to accommodate any form of media, movie or lecture, will serve as a balance between Santa Fe's small and large cultural venues, according to McCarthy. Downstairs, flanked by audio recordings of congressional debate pertaining to New Mexico's statehood, the museum moves into its fifth thematic area, Our Place in the Union. The exhibit unfolds rapidly through Pancho Villa's cross-border Columbus raid, the New Deal, and the dark, blood-rust colored World War II hall with its Navajo code talkers and Japanese internment camps. In the next room, visitors can style themselves spies in a recreation of the Manhattan project's 109 E. Palace Ave. office, picking up the phones to listen in on formerly top-secret communications. The final room of the museum is filled floor to ceiling with photographs taken by New Mexicans from all over the state, answering all the question ;What is My New Mexico?; This final, triumphant section will serve to underscore the museum's emphasis on intergenerational learning, where parents, grandparents, and children can learn from and discuss history with each other, Garcia said. ;We want people to show what to them is the real New Mexico, which is not always sunny,; Garcia said. ;But we hope it encourages people to out across the state and see New Mexico for themselves.;