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Home / Articles / News / Interviews /  SFR Talk: Living History
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SFR Talk: Living History

With Frances Levine

May 6, 2009, 12:00 am

Frances Levine is the director of the New Mexico History Museum (nmhistorymuseum.org), which opens in Santa Fe on May 24. She also is a contributing editor to this month’s Museum of New Mexico Press book, Telling New Mexico, A New History (edited by Marta Weigle). This is an extended version of an interview that appears in this week’s print edition.

SFR: Just to start, should I characterize you as a contributor to the book, Telling New Mexico, or a contributing editor?
FL: A contributing editor, but Marta Weigle was the editor of the book. She was sent by the angels.  [Senior curator] Louise [Stiver] and I knew we wanted to have a book for the opening, we wanted to have a catalogue and we got a group of authors together and had a roundtable discussion to try and shape what the book might be. Marta came to us after the meeting and said, ‘You’re not going to have time for this, to build the museum, create the exhibits, edit the book and tell your fellow historians that they have to rewrite something.’ She said, ‘Let me do this.’ So Marta became the editor and she was contributing to the point where she contributed every moment of her time to it. We had quite a few editorial meetings to shape where we were going and think about, ‘Was there an existing piece that we could use from a previously published article,’ or ‘Did we want a new contribution?’ and it was Marta who was the glue who held it all together.

You write in your epilogue to Telling New Mexico that the opening of the history museum ‘initiates new dialogue in telling New Mexico.’ What were the seeds for you for that new dialogue?
I taught New Mexico history for 15 years at Santa Fe Community College and teaching history in New Mexico, you understand that history here is personal experience, it’s family experience, it’s a community collective experience and it was from my perspective as a teacher, I realized a history museum anymore can’t be didactic. It can’t tell you what to think but it can provide you with an opportunity to see and to touch and to experience the past through dialogue with documents, through viewing artifacts, through listening to oral histories and film.

So it came both from my experience as an instructor and also my experience now having my hands on the goods: the real artifacts of New Mexico history. There’s nothing like sitting there seeing [General] Steven Watts Kearny’s field desk and the portrait of him and opening the desk and his glasses were in it and his migraine tablets—you just experience the history in a very different way when you have all these different ways of getting in touch with the past. So that’s what I mean by that dialogue. I think the Palace of the Governors is a fabulous historic building but it has never been able to tell its own story; it had so many competing functions. So now I think this new building, the new opportunities will allow us to tell the stories of New Mexico history and hear the stories of New Mexico history in a very different way.

What does it mean to talk about ‘new history’?
I think most people get the idea that history is received wisdom—that it happens in the past and is revealed in some way, but they don’t know that way. So I think new history is that opportunity to expose the way in which history is written. So I think new history is that opportunity to expose the way in which history is written: What are the component parts? Is something based on a first person account, an artifact, a diary, multiple diaries of events that shed different perspective on who the participants are?

The opening exhibit is “Fashioning New Mexico” and it’s the first time many of these clothes and accessories will ever have been exhibited?
We have two exhibits in the new history museum. [“Fashioning New Mexico”] is our temporary changing exhibit and most of the costumes, the textiles and the uniforms, very little of it has been on exhibit before.

Were they in storage?
They were in storage at the Palace of the Governors and we also had some big grants from Save America’s Treasures and from the Institute for Museum and Library Services that allowed us to do the conservation work on the fans, on the shoes and on all the clothing.

The museum’s core exhibition is based on the structure of the book itself, with six sections that represent five historic New Mexico time periods as well as contemporary New Mexico?
Exactly. That was the constant dialogue between [editor] Marta Weigle and the authors; we went through script after script after script, constantly reading and saying, ‘Why are we saying it, why are we saying it that way?’ so we took the [museum] script development to the book and the book back to the script development.

So what were some of the highlights of the collection for you?
Let’s see. I have one particular artifact that I love and that’s in the core exhibition and it’s a colcha. It’s a large, almost double-bed size, stitch embroidery and I’m a big needle-worker, so for me I think about the thought and the time and the process that went into creating it because someone had to sheer the sheep, spin the wool, weave the base, dye the thread and then lay out this fabulous design; it’s a spectacular piece.
A portrait we have of La Macana… La Macana was an image of Mary that was here in New Mexico before the Pueblo Revolt and she foretells the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the painting of her is one we have on loan that we hope to be able to buy and she is absolutely spectacular. What else do I love? I love Gen. Mariano Arista’s camp service. He was a Mexican general on the Mexican American war side and his silver service is just gorgeous. Should I keep going? I have to tell you once you get me started…

You write that the exhibitions will help situate our ‘national identity in a broader cultural perspective,’ could you characterize that identity a bit?
I grew up going to school in Connecticut and I learned that the pilgrims started this country. Those of us who learned history on the East Coast were taught that the pilgrims and Jamestown were the beginning of history. When you reorient your thinking to tell American history from the southwest, you realize that the components of American history include pueblo and Navajo and Apache people who have been here since time memorial and Hispanic people who have been here for 16, 17 generations, since the end of the 16th century. That puts a whole different perspective of what made this nation. So I hope we are on the radar screen to really get people talking about a different way of seeing American history and seeing it from the southwest, instead of seeing it from east to west.

The New Mexico tableau you’ve laid out is way more multi-cultural than perhaps the traditional way of looking at New Mexico history.
That’s one of the things we really set out to do in the museum and the book was to break the tripartite myth of New Mexico history and one of the things we wanted people to understand is there are so many more than three cultures in New Mexico and have always been.

Has it been a challenge to try to create a history museum that will appeal to both people who live here and tourists?
We just took that as our job: Our job was to tell what I would call the sort of inside stories about ourselves, but also tell the story and relate it back to American history so people who come here would have a context for it. Patrick Gallagher and Associates in Bethesda, Maryland were our exhibition designers and they design history museums all over the nation, all over the world. So they were very good at saying to us, ‘what are you talking about? Why are you telling that story?’ We did a series of interviews around the state in probably 30 some communities and asked people to tell us what they wanted to hear and we did some focus groups that sometimes included all New Mexicans or people who were visiting and had them tell us the same thing.

Can you talk a little about the role technology will play in the museum?
Big. We have a lot of different types of interactive technology. One of the discussions we had early on was that we wanted to use technology where it was appropriate, but we didn’t want to build a video arcade. So we decided, for example, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was a good place for technology, so we have marvelous interactive. We went to visit museum exhibits all over and we did some personal ethnography; we watched the ways visitors use technology in museums. We also worked with fabulous partners, Second Story Media in Portland, Oregon. They are the people crafting our interactive media displays and they’re really helping us to bring media into appropriate use so it’s not overdone or underdone.

As an anthropologist, do you have a lens through which you view New Mexico?
I view it through a very refracted lens, meaning I learn history in lots of different ways, both through oral history, documents, archaeology and that’s been my overarching theme, you have to have those multiple perspectives on history to understand what happened and when it happened and what caused things to happen.

Do you think there will be anything controversial about the museum?
I think history in and of itself brings people face to face with different ways of telling the past. I can’t imagine we won’t have some disagreement, I don’t know if I’d use the word controversy, I like to look at it as dialogue. I think that’s part of the dialoguing about the past that takes place when people say, ‘yeah but I learned blah blah blah,’ or ‘I think’ or ‘I heard’ or ‘I read.’  That’s what we want people to do is look at it and say, ‘I never knew that,’ or ‘I always learned that.’ One of the other things we’d like to do is create a resolana, an area where we can have some guided discussions about history.

The Tenement Museum in New York City does a very interesting thing where after people go through the museum they meet in this kitchen area to talk about immigration. Our chief educator Erica Garcia and I went and it was so fascinating. We’d like to do something like that here. We’ve create a space called the gathering space where we’d love people to join in conversations about, ‘how did this change your thinking about New Mexico history?’ We want people to come out and say, ‘I learned so much I didn’t know’ or I want to learn how what you said fits with what I learned elsewhere.’

Telling New Mexico: A New History

Edited by Marta Weigle with Frances Levine and Louise Stiver
Museum of New Mexico Press
May 15, 2009
$45 clothbound/$29.95 paperbound
488 pages, 56 black-and-white photographs

It may be impossible to live in New Mexico—even to visit it—without learning about, or at least appreciating, its natural beauty, cultural resources and historic depth.

Telling New Mexico: A New History pays tribute to all these components of the state’s visage, but in such a way as to reinvigorate even the most accepted of New Mexico’s narratives.

In putting together this anthology, editor Marta Weigle and her collaborators have struck a very interesting balance; the book feels both seminal as well as completely fresh in its creation of a multifaceted tableau that charts New Mexico’s evolution on numerous planes.

Organizationally, the book reflects what visitors will find in the core exhibition of the forthcoming New Mexico History Museum, which opens in Santa Fe on May 24. It is divided into thematic and chronological sections, and includes previously published essays, as well as new articles, on topics that range from New Mexico’s volcanoes to the origins of the Jicarilla Apache to Japanese internment camps to Taos hippies to the Roswell incident to Mexican immigration (and that’s just a sprinkling).
This topical span and the collection’s diversity of voices (approximately 50 authors contributed to the book) converge to create a book that is much more than the sum of its many parts. In total, Telling New Mexico transcends its purposing as an accompaniment to the forthcoming museum. It could quite easily be used to teach New Mexico history in classrooms across the state, as a primer for visitors and as reference for future scholarship. Stylistically, the essays are accessible, authoritative and, in several cases, revelatory.

The seventh section, My New Mexico, makes history personal, and two of its essays are particularly noteworthy. In “Finding American World War II Internment in Santa Fe: Voices Through Time” Gail Y Okawa discusses her discovery that her grandfather was imprisoned in an American internment camp in Santa Fe during World War II, her research to understand those events and her attendance, in 2002, of the creating of the stone marker at Frank Ortiz Park in Santa Fe memorializing the events and actions that took place there. In “Tricky Mirror: Mexican Immigrants in New Mexico,” María Cristina López also places what she calls the “psychological frontera” between the US and Mexico, between New Mexico and Mexico, and between native Hispanics and Mexican immigrants into a context that is again both personal and long-viewed.

The concept of “new history,” as museum director Frances Levine describes it, is one in which history is seen in layers, it is gleaned from multiple sources and it evolves over time and through understanding. Telling New Mexico captures that sense of discovery and multi-layered storytelling, and is sure to provoke numerous discussions about the state’s past, present and future.

 

 

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