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.