A Walk Through Time

Plaza merchants shook their stores from slumber as city workers swept the square, their conversation a melodic Spanish carried by the spring breeze. Huddled in the morning chill, we were walkers from St. Louis, New Jersey, Maine, Florida, New York and Michigan, led by a woman from California who was about to bring aboard a few folks like Napoleon, Willa Cather and a Native American saint.

pat“The Italians did not have tomato sauce,” declared Pat Kuhlhoff. “The Swiss did not make chocolate. And there was never a potato famine in Ireland until Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.”

With that, Kuhlhoff began one of the downtown Santa Fe historic walking tours she has conducted on behalf of the Palace of the Governors for 17 years. She and other volunteers rotate responsibility for the tours every Monday-through-Saturday from mid-April through mid-October.

It’s an informal start: Gather at what we museum folks know as “The Blue Gate” – a wooden gate on the east side of Lincoln Avenue that divides the Palace of the Governors from the New Mexico History Museum.

Tours cost $10, last up to two hours (depending on how many questions you ask), don’t require reservations, rarely achieve a pace more strenuous than an amble, and provide a stop for drinking fountains and restrooms. (The museum guides, by the way, do not accept tips.)

Kuhlhoff begins her tour by drawing connections between visitors’ home states and the American Southwest. “All of King George’s Red Coats got their red from Mexico,” she tells an East Coaster. In a way, she’s subverting the standard U.S. educational view of American history, as something that started back East and eventually pioneered its way to a desolate West.

In fact, Kuhlhoff tells her dozen walkers, Santa Fe’s history began some 14,000 years ago with Native peoples who farmed, tamed turkeys and dogs, fought with one another, and then fought with European settlers, before reaching accommodations that led to today’s Southwestern melting pot and its still-distinct ethnic ingredients.

Civil War monumentStanding in the Plaza, Kuhlhoff points to the obelisk commemorating those who died in the so-called Indian wars. She tells of how the word “savage” was chiseled out of its inscription – an oft-told story – but drops in something new: Napoleon saw obelisks used as memorials in Egypt and brought the idea back to France, where it took root and spread.

(We can also thank Napoleon for Southwestern punched-tin decorative arts, Kuhlhoff says. The general decided tin cans were the best way to move goods across long distances. Once goods made it all the way to Santa Fe, throwing away the cans they came in was deemed wasteful, so they were recycled into objects that now typify Santa Fe style.)

Kuhlhoff makes me see, for the first time, the gargoyle heads atop the Catron Block building at Washington and Palace.

She leads us into the Rainbow Man Courtyard on East Palace and points to the office where scientists for the Manhattan Project once learned of their top-secret orders.

palace ave architectureOn the corner of Cathedral and Palace, she compares and contrasts Territorial, Pueblo, Mission and Romanesque architectural styles.

Near the river, she stops at a bed of native plants and deftly IDs yarrow, poppies, aspens – before noting that, just upstream, nuclear secrets were exchanged, a crime that led to the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

On the steps of St. Francis Cathedral, she introduces visitors to the statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first female Native American to attain beatification, and tells a bit of the history of Bishop Lamy, noting drily that Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is “not historically accurate, but popular.”

The walk includes information on the railroad era (with a timely restroom break at La Fonda) and on the use of acequias to move the desert’s most precious natural resource: water.

“You’re with these people such a short time and you don’t get to know them, so I try to make it really broad,” Kuhlhoff said afterward. “If you go into too much detail, people don’t have a basic framework.”

Getting that basic framework to them is easier said than done: “With the docent training we get,” Kuhlhoff said, “I could have these people out there for four days.”

Get Into This: Another Award for the Museum

NMHM_Cowboys 4x3

In the months before and after the History Museum opened (May 23, 2009), newspaper readers, radio listeners, TV watchers, Web surfers and billboard hounds were greeted with this message: “History — Get Into It!”

That ad campaign helped produce block-long lines of people patiently waiting to physically get into it on opening weekend and has kept ’em coming back ever since. (Don’t worry: You no longer have to stand in a block-long line … in the rain … to get in.)

media kit 4x3That campaign just won honors from the American Association of Museums, which gave it two first-place awards in its 2009 Museum Publications Design Competition. The first award was for the media kit (at left), basically a folder stuffed with enough information about all the construction that was going on behind the Palace of the Governors to keep reporters and others intrigued. (Many of those materials are still available here, on the Museum of New Mexico Media Center.)

The second first-placer was for the grand-opening’s marketing and public-relations materials. Gathered around the “History – Get Into It” theme, those materials mixed archival photography with modern-day people. (Go here to see the full campaign and, hey, vote for your favorite. Cowboys? Railroads? Hippies?)

Clearly, the “Get Into It” concept worked: More than 20,000 people lined Lincoln Avenue and packed into galleries during last year’s Memorial Day weekend to be part of the grand opening. As the museum’s first anniversary approaches, attendance has surpassed 150,000, more than doubling the annual attendance of the museum’s predecessor, the Palace of the Governors.

“From the beginning, our marketing team believed two things: First, that New Mexico’s history is not dead, boring or in the past; it is alive, fascinating and all around us. And second, that no one could tell the story better than the home team,” said Shelley Thompson, marketing and outreach director of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs’ Museum Resources Division. “Within our department existed the talent, the creative ability, and most important, the passion to do the job better than anyone else. It took a village in every sense, but a special shout-out goes to David Rohr, Natalie Baca, Cheryle Mitchell and Kate Nelson for excellence in publications, design, advertising and public relations.”

In case you’re wondering: AAM is the premier organization for more than 3,000 museums, including art, history, science, military and youth museums, as well as aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, arboretums, historic sites and science and technology centers. Here’s a full list of winners. Now, get cracking on voting for your favorite “Get Into It” ad by clicking on comments, below.

We’re Number One

True West Magazine has given us the early word that its May edition will name the New Mexico History Museum as the nation’s top Western Museum.

“This is the result of years of hard work by many people,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the museum, which opened on May 23, 2009. “From designing a modern building in a historic setting to developing the exhibits to getting out the word, our staff and volunteers have come through time and again. We are honored by this recognition.”

In his write-up about the museum, Johnny D. Boggs, a Santa Fe author and historian, noted the overflow crowds that filled the museum on its opening weekend: “I hadn’t seen likes like this since I tried to get into a bookstore in Dallas, Texas, where actor Jimmy Stewart was authographing copies of his book of poetry. That was like trying to get into a Dallas Cowboys home playoff game.”

4x5 lines outside

The magazine cites the museum’s large campus, which includes the Palace of the Governors, the nation’s oldest continuously occupied public building; Fray Angélico Chávez History Library; Palace of the Governors Photo Archives; Palace Press; and Native American Artisans Portal Program. Its core exhibit, Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now, the magazine says, “is as diverse as the culture, and history, of New Mexico.”

Boggs writes that he admires the 96,000-square-foot building’s architecture, including the 300 handmade arrows that dangle from the ceiling in the core exhibit’s Pueblo Revolt area.

“Special events, kid-friendly activities and changing exhibits kept things hopping throughout 2009,” he writes. “Expect a busy year again at the New Mexico History Museum, and perhaps some more long lines, as 2010 is the year Santa Fe celebrates its 400th anniversary.”

Portal - Parkhurst 4x5Also in the magazine is an article noting 25 kid-friendly museums, and it names the Native American Artisans Portal Program (left) at the Palace of the Governors.

Other museums getting the magazine’s Top-10 Western Museums nod: the Adams Museum & House, Deadwood, S.D.; Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave, Golden, Colo.; Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas; High Desert Museum, Bend, Ore.; Plains Indian Museum, Cody, Wyo.; National Oregon/California Trail Center, Montpelier, Idaho; Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kan.; Cripple Creek District Museum, Cripple Creek, Colo.; Rim Country Museum, Payson, Ariz.

“These Western museums are important in preserving and exhibiting history and culture,” says True West Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell. “They keep the Old West alive.”

Boggs, who’s been honored four times with a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, selected the winners for this annual award based on his extensive travels, research and firsthand experiences in visiting Western museums each year.  He analyzed their grand showcases of the American West in 2009—“and they had to be really cool,” says Boggs.