Do Something Radical for New Mexico’s Centennial: Write a Letter

By Dr. Frances Levine, Director, New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors

This morning, January 6, the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors will host a First-Day-of-Issue event on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service and its New Mexico Centennial stamp. That we’re kicking off a year of Centennial activities at the History Museum with a stamp-related event delights my historian sensibilities by inviting New Mexico’s citizens to take part in a letter-writing project.

To tell the stories of our past, historians gather information from many sources. They use photographs, documents, and artifacts, like the 47-star flag now on display downstairs in the New Mexico History Museum. But what they treasure more than anything are journals and letters – written accounts of what was happening just as it was happening and told by participants in the events.

As we prepared to mark the Centennial in our exhibitions with an installation called 47 Stars, we discovered that the historians who preceded us had left out some of the accounts we would have loved to use. That got us wondering about what we’re leaving for the people who will one day mark New Mexico’s 200th year as a state.

These days, hand-written accounts of our lives are in short supply. We all rely on e-mails to communicate, but I bet few of us print them out and save them in a box under the bed. Many of us mark the mileposts of our lives with short Facebook updates that go – where? Who knows?

Some historians say all this electronic communication will provide a bounty of material for future historians. Others say something will be sorely missing, that holding a letter written by a person who participated in the historic events as they happened and reading the thoughts they considered important enough to put on paper is truly what makes people connect across generations and throughout history.

Lew Wallace finished writing the novel Ben Hur while he was a Territorial governor in New Mexico, and he left this account of what it was like to work on the book inside the Palace of the Governor’s thick adobe walls.

My custom when night came was to lock the doors and bolt the windows of the office proper, and with a student’s lamp, bury myself in the four soundless walls of the forbidding annex. Once there, at my rough pine table, the Count of Monte Cristo in his dungeon of stone was not more lost to the world.

The ghosts, if they were ever about, did not disturb me; yet in the hush of that gloomy harborage, I beheld the Crucifixion, and strove to write what I beheld.

I can feel the surface of his rough pine table. I can imagine the chill of a supposed ghost when a viga creaked or loose page fell to the floor. Those are special details to historians and help us bring the past to life.

Each of us has a gift to leave for tomorrow’s historians: A written account of our lives today. So all of us at the New Mexico History Museum have a radical proposal: Write us a letter. That’s it. Just a letter. Tell us a bit about what your life in the year 2012 is like.

Update: The letter need not be hand-written if you’d rather print it out.

Describe your house, your neighborhood, the businesses you like to visit and why. What games do you play? Where do you go to enjoy the outdoors and what does it look like today? What kind of job do you have and what’s the status of that industry? What do you worry about? What gives you hope? What is it about New Mexico that makes it your home place and heart place?

Fold it up, put it in an envelope, address it, and then mail it – maybe using one of those beautiful Centennial stamps. We’ll collect them and share them throughout the year but, most important, we’ll put them into a safe place to spend a few decades gaining perspective. When 2112 rolls around, New Mexico’s historians will delight in the treasure trove you helped create.

Send your letters to: Centennial Letter Writing Project, New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe, NM, 87501.


We Pledge Allegiance to Our 47-Star Flag

It took some very careful maneuvering to get it into place, but in honor of next year’s New Mexico Centennial, our 47-star flag was moved into its display case today. The fragile flag was secured to 5-by-9-foot board (by rough estimate) that had to be transported down two flights and through the lower-level Collections Storage Area to join our existing statehood exhibit.

(That’s Palace Press Printer Jame Bourland on the near end and Exhibition Preparator Doug Jewell on the other slooooowly moving it through, at left.)

We readily admit that the flag is unofficial, maybe even a tad illegal. By federal law, new stars could only be added to the U.S. flag once a year: on July 4th. But 39 days after New Mexico’s Jan. 6, 1912 admission, Arizona sneaked in, robbing us of the chance to have a flag with only our additional star. That didn’t stop manufacturers from churning out a few, including the three in our possession.

They’ll be rotated through display, a year at a time, to spare them from too much exposure to light. The first one up is the monster-sized version, 65×115¾”. It came to us via a donor in  Drexel City, Penn., who said her father had owned it. Getting it into condition to be displayed came courtesy of conservation work done by Rebecca Tinkham Hewett and Cindy Lee Scott.

Here’s a photographic journey of what went down (or is that up?) today:

The “before” wall, above. (This is at the bottom of the staircase from the mezzanine; the wall used to have a huge Depression-era photograph on it.)

Cindy checks the existing light levels to determine how much adjustment will be needed in their brightness to protect the flag.

Doug attaches a rail to what will be the top of the exhibition case.

At one point, he had to retreat and let Cindy fix part of the edging with that most trusty of any conservator’s tool: A Swiss Army knife.

After wrestling it out of the room, along the way managing to avoid any number of perilous obstructions, they laid it flat then lifted one end to a vertical position. (“It’s like Iwo Jima,” James said to appreciative laughter.) Then — one, two, three — they pushed it into its exhibition case:

We still have a few Centennial tricks up our sleeve, including a front-window display that will let you pose in a replica 1912 parade float, and a yearlong schedule of statehood-related Brainpower & Brownbags lectures. On Jan. 6, the United States Postal Service will join us for a First-Day-of-Issue event for the official Centennial stamp, designed by New Mexico artist Doug West. It’s all part of what we call 47 Stars, an installation supporting our main exhibition’s section about statehood.

In the meantime, we’re justifiably proud of all the staffers who worked hard to bring this once-depressing (or at least Depressioning) wall in our museum to life.

Come by and check it out, along with all the other pieces of the statehood story we have to tell.


The Officially Unofficial Kind of Illegal 47-Star Flag Comes in for Repairs

On April 4, 1818, Congress enacted the Flag Act of 1818, setting forth a rule that no new stars could be added to the flag until the Fourth of July immediately following a state’s admission to the Union. Thanks to that once-a-year-and-only-once-a-year mandate, New Mexicans hoping to share their pride at becoming the 47th state were essentially forced into committing their first illegal acts as U.S. citizens.

And flag manufacturers, only too happy to supply the demand, made their day by stitching together 47-star flags in willful disobeyance of that 1818 law.

In celebration of New Mexico’s centennial, the History Museum will commemorate that dip into the dark side with 47 Stars, an exhibit of the officially unofficial 47-star flag. (Actually three of them, shown in rotation to reduce the strains of being on display.) From January 6 through November 25, 2012, the flags will join a collection of long-term exhibits about statehood and a tongue-in-cheek front-window installation marking our entrance into the Union.

Here’s the news nugget: This week, Rebecca Tinkham Hewett, part of the crackerjack conservation team for the Museums of New Mexico, began prepping the smallest of the three flags for display.

She started by pinning it to an acid-free board covered with fabric and will next stitch it to the fabric around the flag’s edge and in a network pattern within it to ensure it doesn’t sag when the board is hoisted to a wall in the museum’s Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now exhibition. The statehood section within that exhibit already includes:

·        Audio re-enactments of arguments for and against New Mexico’s entry into the Union, produced by aural historian Jack Loeffler.

·        A photo of the 1910 Constitutional Convention.

·        President Taft’s proclamation of statehood and the pen he used to sign it.

·        The top hat worn by William McDonald to his inauguration as New Mexico’s first governor.

What makes the flags officially unofficial? Just 39 days after New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912, Arizona stepped up to the statehood plate on February 14, 1912. By virtue of coming in second, Arizona would receive its just due on July 4, when the official flag of the United States was to switch from 46 to 48 stars. In the meantime, patriotic New Mexicans wanted a flag of their own , and eager U.S. flag manufacturers came up with the unofficial 47-star flag.

How the three flags ended up in the museum’s hands involves a whole lot of out-of-state miles. The 34½-by-72¼” flag Tinkham Hewett is working on was delivered to the museum in 2001 by a Mrs. James Hetzler, office manager of a church in St. Louis. While cleaning out a closet, she found the flag and figured it was left by a since-disbanded Boy Scout troop. The medium-sized, 43½-by-93½” flag was donated by a Fredrich Liberet in 1988, who said it had been passed down by his great-great-grandfather. And the largest, 65-by-115¾” flag arrived in 2000 from a woman who said it had belonged to her father in Drexel City, Penn.

Made of a plain-weave wool, the small flag is missing a few stars on the side visitors won’t see. On the side they will, a few of the stars show slight stains. Tinkham Hewett isn’t certain what made the stains, but said she won’t take pains to remove them.

“It’s earned these stains,” she said. “It’s part of the evidence to a life an object has had. To remove them takes away that evidence, part of its history.”

Come Jan. 6, Tinkham Hewett’s careful work will come to fruition, helping the museum bring the centennial to life.

“Conservation concerns have kept us from bringing our 47-star flags out of collections for public view,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “But the Centennial was too good of an opportunity to pass up. By letting visitors see these artifacts in specially designed display cases, we hope they’ll become engaged in the amazing story of New Mexico’s struggle for statehood.”