Tourists abound these days.
You won't find the crowds that have descended on Venice, Italy for its Biennale and to see Santa Fe-based artist Bruce Nauman's Topological Gardens, but for that we're grateful. Balance is what to look for in a tourist economy—visitors are good; zombie hordes are bad.
The best place to observe tourists and locals interacting in their curious and time-honored dance is the newly opened New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln Ave., 505-476-5200). OK, OK, the best place is probably the newly opened restaurant and bar Milagro 139, but to any place that touts "cuisine of the Americas" but serves no mezcal, I say, "Pshaw."
Actually, I like Milagro 139 just fine, but in the interest of mezcal, I'd like to lead the staff over to the New Mexico History Museum for a glimpse at El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro and a reminder that we're the northernmost point on a long-standing trade route that ends with access to mezcal.
There's plenty more good information on hand at the NMHM and, if my observation is on target, the museum is alarmingly successful.
What I mean is that other people seem to like it.
On my most recent visit, people were all abuzz with interactive, multimedia info-snippets of easy-access McHistory.
The theory goes that modern museums need to lead people through a sculpted adventure packed with high-tech highlights and just the right amount of educational material (which is not too much). The public is tired of the museum as attic or basement "full of long-forgotten objects," according to NMHM's mission statement.
Personally, I'm a fan of basements full of long-forgotten objects. I like my artifacts to be burdened with painfully detailed research, and I prefer it when the wallpaper doesn't compete for my attention and when voices don't spring out of the walls and when covered wagon exhibits are about themselves rather than video installations.
The new museum, just as I discovered with the new aquarium in San Francisco, has succumbed to the short-attention-span society of the spectacle. If you ask me, it's a pisser, but I love what museums do too much to complain about it that loudly.
Museums have been dying for quite some time and, since it's better to keep extinction a topic in the museums rather than of the museums, it's best they adapt.
And there are still objects and bits of information capable of entirely ensnaring one and maintaining enchantment even in the midst of screaming, ill-behaved children and men whose bodies are sized more for the aisles at Walmart than for downtown buildings. If one must multimedia, the exhibit dedicated to 109 Palace Ave. is slick and rewarding, especially because engagement with its impressive audio is entirely voluntary and done privately through individual rotary telephones.
There are more weapons than one might expect, but then, even in a family-friendly museum, it's tough to disguise how genuinely brutal and violent New Mexico's history has been. I'm no armorer, but I heard repeated allegations that "whoever" was labeling the firearms "has no clue what they're talking about" (hint: Somebody might want to make sure that pistol is really a "flintlock").
Besides a bizarre digitally animated mirror that makes you feel like you've fallen into a Harry Potter movie, the museum's temporary exhibition Fashioning New Mexico (through April 14, 2010) is perfectly enjoyable and subtly astounding.
Permanent works by Kumi Yamashita in the museum's interior and Paula Castillo on the exterior are both surprisingly good for being publicly funded.
Accepting that I am in the minority of people attached to stuffy old museums, my only legitimate complaint is that the end of the museum's "core" exhibition, where it deals with "growth" in New Mexico, is a real cop-out. There are heady issues involved here, and the current forest of photographs is a colorful way to avoid them.
Otherwise, the New Mexico History Museum is winning hearts and minds, one curmudgeon at a time.
Tourists abound these days.