Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now

Review

of an Exhibition

by Amanda Lee

Published on June 02, 2017

  • Description:

    I have been a resident of Santa Fe for six years now; so I am embarrassed to say that this was my first time experiencing the long term exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum, Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now. I have visited a number of their temporary shows, such as an exploration of the Fred Harvey company and an exhibition on pinhole photography, but I procrastinated taking the time to take in the overview of New Mexico’s fascinating and turbulent history.

    As you enter the exhibition, the first gallery presents an introduction to the Native peoples who inhabited the land that is now New Mexico, long before the first European settlers arrived on the continent. If your expectation would be to see pottery, jewelry, baskets, and other cultural artifacts, you would not be disappointed. However, the displays with these objects are interspersed with handprint-shaped indentations that are activated when visitors place their own hands within. The results of these interactions are audio clips of Navajo and Pueblo people recounting traditional stories passed down from generations.

    The narrative of this exhibition is a chronological account of the Euro-centric history of New Mexico. Though the exhibition begins by introducing the Indigenous legacy of the area, the show’s story truly begins with the arrival of Juan de Onate and Spanish colonists. Fortunately, the exhibition’s text does not glorify colonialism; contrasting panels are included to share the events and peoples of the Pueblo people as well as other Native tribes.

    I appreciate the integration of testimonials, stories, and other content by Native people of the region into this historical overview of New Mexico. Though it is not a truly balanced or unbiased presentation of history (if that even exists!), it is apparent to me that the curator made sure not marginalize Native perspectives in favor of the Colonial narrative. In many vitrines, Spanish, Mexican, and Indigenous artifacts are displayed side-by-side, giving their significance equal weight. In a number of places, Natives’ (literal) own voices can be heard telling important cultural and religious stories or recounting time spent in boarding schools.

    An exhibition like this runs the risk of overstimulation via text, and there were points when I was exhausted by the amount of informational panels presented for me to read. Fortunately, there was variety in the type of text provided, and I found that I could pick and choose how to experience the materials presented. In addition to drier, more academic panels, the curators found journal entries, testimonials, and interesting quotations to complement the artifacts on display. If you are a person who connects to personal accounts and anecdotes, these are the perfect points of access to the content of this exhibition.

    Another point of accessibility was the inclusion of a wide variety of artifacts from the specifically historical (ie. Dona Tulles’ hair comb) to the general (dutch oven and ladle used on the Santa Fe Trail). Observing items that were used by both historically significant and “ordinary” people gave the sense that you could be looking at the possessions of your own distant relatives. This became a personally significant factor for me when I came upon a catalogue for The Old Curio Store owned by my great-great grandfather, Jesus Sito Candelario. This served to bring me into the narrative of New Mexico and forced me to consider the uncomfortable truths of the tumultuous past and relationships between the many peoples who inhabit this land.

    Overall, this exhibition displays a wealth of objects and information related to the history of New Mexico. Though it is not perfect in its portrayals across the board, I can appreciate that the curators aimed to create a narrative that didn’t shy away from the hard truths of colonialism and the United State’s greed for westward expansion.

Latest Comments (1)

being a part of history--literally!

by Kathleen Mclean - June 05, 2017

Thanks Amanda. Did you know your great great grandfather’s catalog was in the exhibition, or were you surprised? It would have been great if there was a place for your comments and perspectives. At the end of your experience in the exhibition, did you find yourself thinking in new ways about New Mexico history, or did the exhibition primarily reinforce your prior understandings? Thanks for including a variety of photos.

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