New History Museum Designed for all New Mexicans

The New Mexican 

On May 23, 2009, the people of this state get a big present with the opening of the New Mexico History Museum. Coming up with the concept for the important, 96,000-square-foot building was daunting.

“For us the big issue was building up close to the iconic Palace of the Governors,” said Frances Levine, director of the Palace of the Governors and the new history museum. “When you’re in the museum, you will look out and see the back wall of the Palace, which is our most important exhibit.”

And the Palace of the Governors, four centuries old next year, will be treated as an exhibit, with text panels explaining its history. There will be a garden area between the two buildings and a walk-through; visitors will be able to buy admission tickets in either building.

The museum occupies three full stories, with a mezzanine. When complete, it will offer copious exhibition space and state-of-the-art storage facilities, including a storage vault of almost 8,400 square feet. Finally, thousands of artifacts that have been kept in less-than-archival conditions in the Palace and in the basements of various state buildings will have a fitting home.

The museum presented special challenges for the architects, Conron & Woods, Santa Fe; and Dagit-Saylor, Philadelphia. “One of the architectural aspects of the project that stands out for us is the sequence of spaces within the building,” said Roy Woods of the Santa Fe firm. “We wanted to link the many exhibit spaces and levels of the building in a way that would allow visitors to experience the exhibit spaces and the story they will tell about the history of New Mexico. Key to this is the Cross-Roads atrium space in the center of the building.”

This open area, which Woods described as “a wonderful, light-filled space,” is fairly unique. “A lot of people begin with the concept of a museum as a black box, but it’s so important to have some relation to the outside,” Levine said. “What I like a lot are that we have places in the museum where you still have a vantage point on the architecture and the setting of Santa Fe, as well as that great tree in the courtyard of the Palace of the Governors. Then you have the exhibition areas and you are in black boxes.”

The “black box” tag relates to the fact that most exhibitions “rely on strictly controlled light levels and atmosphaeres, so you can create theatrical settings,” she explained. “Also, especially in New Mexico, the strong sunlight can really degrade artifacts: textiles and documents, paintings, hide paintings, and leather objects… almost every single thing you have in a history museum can be threatened by too much light.”

Architectural style was another important issue, since this was a new structure to be erected in the midst of other neighboring, historic structures. Not only does it abut the Palace of the Governors, but the new museum’s Washington Avenue façade appears between the Palace meeting room, a John Gaw Meem building, on the south and the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library & Photo Archives on the north. “Pilar Cannizzaro at the State Historic Preservation Division helped us with how we could do a new building here and also honor the existing buildings,” said Palace deputy director John McCarthy.

Woods said the architects did not want to mimic the styles of the neighboring structures. The Washington façade is “set back to permit the existing Meem Room and the History Library to be appreciated in their own right, while also providing a clear entrance for the History Museum. This is done with the taller massing of the façade, and the large monumental window and doors and the color of the stucco,” he said.

“The curved façade along Lincoln Avenue provides a transition between the street alignment of the Palace and the adjoining commercial building. To articulate the main entrance, the façade pushes out to create an arcade on Lincoln Avenue.”

Cordova artist Paula Castillo, who is renowned for her metal sculptures, will create three works – including one depicting the Rio Grande – to enliven the museum’s face on Lincoln. Inside the museum, there will be pieces by Kumi Yamashita, an artist whose work involves figurative shadows cast by low-angle light on shallow, sculptural forms.

For the walls of the history museum, the architects specified Nudura, a locally distributed brand of insulating concrete forms. This system was chosen because it is relatively fast and easy to build with and has superior insulation qualities. “We also felt the concrete walls to be a more honest expression of the massing that was desired for this important civic building,” Woods said. “We specifically wanted to avoid hanging a fake skin on the building.”

Museums, unlike most new buildings, require very special treatment on the interior, an entirely separate dimension of work designing and constructing the exhibit spaces. Gallagher & Associates of Bethesda, Md., is doing the design work, with lots of input from New Mexicans.

“We’ve done something maybe different than other museums,” Levine said. “We’ve used a ‘content team,’ multiple curators and educators working together to design exhibits. One good example of why this is good is when someone wanted to use a script that mimicked 17th-century script on our labels, but our educators pointed out it would be hard for students to read.”

The team members’ various fields of expertise functions like checks and balances. “A lot of times, we ask, ‘Why are we telling this story? Is it because of a particular artifact? Is it a compelling story?'” Levine said. “We have what we call the ‘So What Factor.’ Someone will get really excited about something and we say, ‘So what?’ and ‘Why are we telling this story?’ to make sure it’s a good idea.”

The museum displays are story-driven. Visitors will be guided by, and will experience, both sequential and thematic timelines as they move through the facility.

“I always had two personal goals,” McCarthy said. “First, that this will be a museum for all New Mexicans, so that people from all over, including from south of I-40, will say, ‘This is my history. You told our story well.’ And second, I’d like to have guards that will have to slow children down, they’re so excited.

“One challenge is that today’s kids have the Internet, where they can find so much. But we learn in many ways: by seeing, hearing, by touch and by smell. We have the annual mountain-man festival and the kids can pick up a buffalo hide, so the new museum will have things people can touch.”

The museum’s main entrance will be on Lincoln, near the Palace of the Governors. Inside the doors, there will be a gift shop and restrooms, then the museum-admission station.

Among the museum’s features will be history-based films produced by Michael Kamins, director of KNME’s “Colores” series, that will be shown in a 210-seat auditorium and on several smaller screens at different parts of the museum.

As the visitor progresses through the museum, the story of New Mexico is revealed, from the early history of the Native Americans into the period of colonization by Spanish settlers, the rise in importance of the future capital city with trade on the Santa Fe Trail, and the coming of the railroad. “We were looking for the quintessential story for the mezzanine lobby and that is the story of the Fred Harvey Company and the idea of travel in the Southwest,” Levine said.

The story continues with the Great Depression and World War II, including special focuses on the Bataan Death March, the Navajo Code Talkers, the Japanese internment camp in Santa Fe, and the Manhattan Project. There will be a replica of the secret Army office at 109 E. Palace Avenue where Dorothy McKibben briefed physicists and engineers coming from around the country and bound for Los Alamos.

The story of New Mexico’s history advances with “Boom Theater,” starting with the White Sands testing of the atomic bomb and ending with the housing boom of the 1970s. The last gallery in the scheme is called “My New Mexico” and will feature oral histories collected all over the state by historian and author Jack Loeffler.

Levine acknowledged that it is impossible to do everything, to tell every single story, in the opening set of exhibits. “Someone may walk through and wonder why this or that story isn’t being told. That’s the strength of our Changing Gallery, that we’ll be able to respond and develop those stories,” she said.

“From the second story of the museum, you can see all the historic rooflines in Santa Fe and I would love to do an architectural history exhibit in the future. The Changing Gallery will allow us to do that kind of thing in the future.”