Last fall, the New Mexico Museum of Art celebrated its 100th birthday by making a few changes aimed at restoring some of the Pueblo Revival-style building’s interiors to their original luster. The drab brown painted floors were stripped and refinished, bringing back their original bright gleam. The skylights in the first-floor gallery ceilings, long sealed over, were uncovered, bringing in some natural light. The loading dock, plagued by flooding during heavy rains, got a whole new roof. These were welcome, and in some cases necessary, changes.
Now the New Mexico History Museum is planning some upgrades to its lobby, too, to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars. The museum, having yet to mark its decade anniversary, doesn’t quite have the pedigree of its Palace Avenue neighbor — so the reason why the upgrades, which will include a makerspace and new signage, are necessary is a bit of a head-scratcher. “The lobby has been notoriously difficult for people to understand and navigate in the last 10 years. It has almost no wayfinding,” Andrew Wulf, the museum’s executive director, said. The Museum of New Mexico Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the state museum system though development for exhibitions and educational programs, is in the midst of a campaign to raise the funds. “We’re about halfway through that campaign and hoping to complete it by next summer,” said Jamie Clements, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. Some changes have already been made, but they don’t all bode well for what the near future has in store.
Makerspaces in cultural institutions have been trending for nearly as long as the History Museum has been around. It first opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2009. The museum’s original concept for renovation, developed in 2016, was to transform the now-defunct Cowden Café into a makerspace and learning center. That plan was scrapped. “We moved the makerspace to the lobby because it’s very difficult to find that café space,” Wulf said. “We’re trying to make a congregant space. There’s no shortage of curricula that we’re currently developing that looks at some of the most analog making history here, from weaving yucca sandals to making mini-robots based on technology they’re using at Los Alamos.”
The museum had plans for a similar space in the nook between the lobby and museum gift shop several months ago. That plan, too, was abandoned. The new makerspace will be situated on the landing Wulf described as the crossover area because it is adjacent to the entrance leading to the Palace courtyard. “As I understand, it will be a flexible space,” Clements said. “They’ll have the ability to move walls and furnishing and whatnot to make it an open space for other activities.” According to Clements and Wulf, the funding raised by the foundation thus far comes from local donors, and the campaign is about $80,000 away from reaching its $250,000 goal.
In advance of these additions, the museum received a brand-new paint job featuring a murky and oppressive color scheme. A pattern of pale yellow stripes runs vertically down dark teal walls where all of the museum’s original lobby displays, including large-scale photographs showcasing the state’s history and landscapes, once hung. One can’t imagine any display materials being served by the new design, which also calls attention away from the plate glass windows, a design meant to show off the adobe architecture and antiquity of the Palace of the Governors, which can be seen through the glass.
“The biggest critique we’ve had of the previous iteration of the lobby is that it looked like a bank lobby, and that’s not really what a museum is striving to share with their visitors,” Wulf said. Unfortunately, I think the current state of the lobby exacerbates rather than addresses that problem. Entering the lobby, which I did on several occasions over the last month, feels less like a foray into a cultural institution and more like, as a companion on one of those visits remarked, an excursion to a dental clinic from the 1970s. I told Wulf that it reminded me of being in a hospital now. I might have my mind changed when the work is complete but, for now, the empty lobby is open for all to see.
That the lobby was practically empty of visitors on recent visits was telling. What’s to lure them through the door? If signage was a problem before, it’s still one now. With the Palace of the Governors temporarily closed for renovations, visitors can still see Atomic Histories (on view through May 2019); On Exhibit: Designs That Defined the Museum of New Mexico (opening Oct. 26); and permanent displays like Setting the Standard: The Fred Harvey Company and Its Legacy and Telling New Mexico: Stories From Then and Now, the latter of which, after nine years, has grown stale. The Segesser Hide Paintings, some of the earliest known depictions of colonial-era life in the United States, which were previously on exhibit at the Palace, will be reinstalled near the start of Telling New Mexico. An adjunct called The First World War opens on Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the armistice. The funding for that show came from a separate campaign.
A professional paint job might be an expensive endeavor, but given the roughly $170,000 already raised by the Museum Foundation, the new lobby presents as far from perfect. For that amount of money, perfection shouldn’t just be expected but guaranteed. Judging by the sloppiness of the paint application, I wouldn’t trust the painters to stay inside the lines of a coloring book. “We’re still going through and doing touch-ups and refinishing certain areas that don’t look that good,” Wulf said. “We’re still raising funds for it,” he said. Fair enough. But if the foundation is only a little more than halfway through its campaign, isn’t the museum jumping the gun on its renovation decisions?
Wulf hired Barbara Felix Architecture + Design to redesign the lobby, the same firm responsible for the controversial remodel of the La Fonda bar and lobby, completed in 2016, which prompted numerous opinion pieces and letters to the editor in the Santa Fe New Mexican, both pro and con. Zane Fischer of MAKE Santa Fe was hired to make it happen. But if most of the proposed changes in the museum lobby are cosmetic (new lobby furniture, for instance), was hiring outside the museum for the new look really necessary? Anyone who has seen the exhibits at the state museums knows that the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Museum Resources Division has some exceptional talent on hand. I suspect they would have chosen a better color scheme, at least. I’m not averse to green. It’s one of my favorite colors. But the museum seems to be going less for something that says New Mexico and more for an institutional green.
Making controversial and, in some cases, flat-out bad decisions seems to be a pattern for Wulf. In 2017, The New Mexican reported on his decision to remove the devils from the annual holiday pageant Los Posadas — roles that had traditionally been a part of the event for decades — replacing them with innkeepers. Last May, The New Mexican also reported on the proposed additions to the already elaborate regulations in place for the vendors of the Palace of the Governors portal program, as well as Wulf’s attempt, this past July, to halt the Santa Fe Fiesta Council’s tradition of hanging the Fiesta plaques that bear the Spanish coats of arms of local families. That plan was reversed after public outcry.
Wulf is also overseeing the structural upgrades and installation of new exhibits at the Palace of the Governors, a historic building with a legacy stretching back over 400 years, as well as a repository for the state’s cultural patrimony. That’s a cause for concern in light of Wulf’s past actions and the History Museum lobby’s current appearance.
The History Museum is emblematic of a region whose narrative is integral to the story of America. The lobby — a place of first impressions — should reflect that. ◀