Theatre of Understanding: The New Mexico History Museum



When you step into the New Mexico History Museum (NMHM) you immediately experience a new vision of what a 21st century museum or gallery can be—a tactile, visual, imaginative, theatrical, auditory experience of slipping into different times and places. History comes alive. A new paradigm is afoot.

At the threshold of the museum’s core exhibit, “Telling New Mexico: Stories From Then and Now,” my six year old places her hand inside an ancient handprint, set in a replica of a New Mexican cliff. When her small hand begins to feel the shape of a hand from many generations ago, she crosses thousands of years in one simple gesture.

There is a myriad of perspectives and peoples represented. A docent points upward in the next room; arrows cover the ceiling. A video screen loops traditional dances and street celebrations of New Mexico. A projection of a film about life on the Santa Fe Trail spills across the canvas of a replica of a covered wagon. Exhibits weave new technologies with authentic artifacts, photographs, letters and diaries. The phrase “borders are lines that nations invent and defend” is highlighted.

Each exhibit sparks an imaginative leap to empathy for and understanding of the past. “We don’t privilege one perspective over another,” explains museum director Frances Levine. Museums are “no longer simply community or state attics filled with long-forgotten objects and yellowing letters; they are becoming places that honor the past while serving as partners in education, civic engagement and social change.”

How was this amazing, immersive vision created and achieved?

Originally conceived as an annex to the Palace of the Governors in the 1970s, the museum is over 20 years in the making. Then Palace director Dr. Tom Chávez and his staff were able to raise seed money. In 2002, the museum hired Dr. Levine, a professor of history and anthropology and a former assistant dean at Santa Fe Community College, with a host of distinguished professional honors and awards and publications to her credit.

Harold and Susan Skramstad, museum consultants, encouraged the NMHM to join “a growing number of museum professionals in other states engaged in rethinking the role of history museums.” Through a grant from Thaw Charitable Trust, Levine was able to tour history, children’s, science and technology museums throughout the U.S.


Levine then interviewed people from every corner of the state. These listening sessions led to a redesign of the building and an expansion of public programming. The three-story, 96,000 square-foot building includes an education center, a 200-seat auditorium (which features an ongoing free lecture series), over 26,000 square feet of exhibition space and 12,000 square feet for collections storage.

The NMHM hired Gallagher & Associates, an international museum design firm. Firm president Patrick Gallagher views history museums as a vital part of helping us to contextualize the barrage of headlines vying for our attention—a remedy for the all-time low history scores in schools. Museum visitors become “performers in a ‘theatre’ of understanding.”

Exhibits are carefully considered, use the latest technology, include personal narrative and place objects in a way that tells a story. The result is “not a book on a wall,” as Levine reveals. It is an examination of what we have, and what we keep.

“We don’t know why we find Maria (Ignacia Jaramillo) Bent’s coat so moving, but we do,” explains Levine. Her coat dramatically brings home New Mexico’s complex history. Maria’s husband, Charles Bent, was appointed the first Territorial Governor in 1846, and was killed in 1847 during the Taos Revolt.

Her coat makes history personal; we see the assassination through her eyes.

The museum’s core exhibit, “Telling New Mexico,” is divided into six sections, beginning with the native communities who have inhabited present-day New Mexico for thousands of years. It continues into New Mexico’s colonial history, which, unknown to many Americans, began in the early 1500s. We become immersed in trade routes, treaties, wars, the coming of the railroad, science and technology/Los Alamos, and the counterculture. The end of the exhibit is designed to make gallery goers want to hit the road, to experience New Mexico for themselves. There is a place for people to add and record their own oral histories.


How has the public met this imaginative and radical new vision? Attendance is record breaking. In the first five months, the museum had over 100,000 visitors. One of the only complaints is that people want more. They want their own stories included. Museum staff is meeting this need, and the public can help.

“There are stories we want to tell, but we don’t have the artifacts,” says Levine. The museum has few artifacts from the long history of the Palace of the Governors. They have almost no materials post World War II, or from Blackdom (the first all-black community, near Roswell), or from the 1960s counterculture. Donations of these artifacts, which may be found in museum goers’ trunks or attics, would be gratefully accepted. Levine laughs at the thought of her mini-skirt and halter top becoming an artifact. History is tangible. History is what “happened a moment ago,” she says.

Now that the new building is open, the NMHM can program the Palace of the Governors in a way that reflects its unique status as the oldest, continuously occupied public building in the United States. “Santa Fe: Fragments of Time,” co-curated by Stephen Post and Josef Diaz, is an exhibit that literally blows open the hatches.

Doors cut in the floor of the Palace of the Governors during the last archeological dig in the 1970s have been flipped open and lined with Plexiglas so that the public can see right into the dig. The exhibit focuses on a selection of over 800,000 artifacts Post and his team uncovered on the site of the new building, just north of the Palace. The co-curators’ aim is to give visitors a sense of the process of archeology and a context for the artifacts.

Co-curator Diaz places ornate, intricate metal buttons found on the site next to a portrait from the period to show how they were likely worn. Pottery shards are displayed next to complete pieces, telling a story of artistic cross-pollination unique to New Mexico. Due to trade routes, Ming Dynasty porcelain from China inspired Native New Mexican potters. We see pagodas painted on jars evolve into adobe homes; scalloped lace on 17th century Spanish dresses inspire rims of Native soup bowls.

Post’s enthusiasm is contagious. “Every piece has a story. It is all interesting to me!” he rhapsodizes. NMHM truly embodies its motto: “Every New Mexican has a place in our history.”

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and closed Mondays. For more information about the museum, call (505) 476-5200 or visit

Elaine Avila is a playwright and art critic, and holds the Robert F. Hartung Endowed Chair of Dramatic Writing at the University of New Mexico

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 24

Related Pages

1909-2009: One Hundred Years of the Museum of New Mexico article

Albuquerque Museum of Art & History: Permanent Collection article

2007: The Year of O’Keeffe: The O’Keeffe Museum Celebrates 10 Years article

The E. I. Couse Historic Home & Studio in Taos article


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