Enlivening the Museum Experience: Educators Innovate Learning Across New Mexico

“I told them this exhibit is different. It has 60 curators, not just one, and every pot has a story,” recalls Hinds, the museum’s education director. “And then I said, ‘We all have stories. There are stories in superhero movies. Your family has stories. Even coming here today is a story. You left your school, you got on the bus, you sat by so-and-so, and then you arrived here and met me. That’s a story.’”

Hinds is one of a cadre of educators within the Museum of New Mexico system enlivening the museum experience through hands-on activities, public lectures, exhibition engagement stations, docent training and—of course—school field trips. While the four state museums are based in Santa Fe, these educators are united by their mission to reach as many New Mexicans as they can. But each one approaches their responsibilities differently, depending on the museum’s focus as well as their personal passions.

Hinds, a former interim principal of Tesuque Pueblo’s Te Tsu Geh Oweenge School, says, “I’ve always seen [the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture] as ‘our’ museum. I really want to make it a place where people know they can gather, be a part of it. I want Pueblo kids here all the time.”

When students from the pueblos of Santa Ana and San Felipe visit, they might spend some of their time across Milner Plaza at the Museum of International Folk Art. The neighboring museums often split large groups in half and then switch midday. Downtown, the New Mexico Museum of Art and New Mexico History Museum have a similar arrangement—for crowd control and to make sure students get as much out of their field trips as possible, since bussing costs limit the number of visits schools can make each year.

A variety of philanthropic arrangements and partnerships between the museums, schools and community groups help offset the transportation burden. For example, Friends of Folk Art, the Museum of International Folk Art’s member support group, recently voted to donate $5,000 to the museum’s new School Visit Travel Fund. Nonetheless, museum educators agree this is an area that could use substantial private support.“

Education is what keeps museum exhibitions and collections relevant in changing times,” says Jamie Clements, president and CEO of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, which provides private funding for education throughout the Museum of New Mexico system. “Our educators provide innumerable opportunities for lifelong learning, addressing topical issues, offering real-life instruction in art, culture and history, and celebrating creativity through hands-on activities. As always, our members and donors help make this important work possible, including funding transportation to bring schoolchildren to our museums, historic sites and the Center for New Mexico Archaeology.”

Innovation and Interpretation

Students’ urgent educational needs during the pandemic prompted educators to create robust online school programs, with lesson plans tailored to individual classrooms. Now that these requests have tapered off, educators at the New Mexico Museum of Art are revamping New Mexico Art Tells New Mexico History (online.nmartmuseum.org/nmhistory), a virtual program created about 15 years ago to interpret state history and culture through images in the collection. Its rather narrow set of interpretations requires updating.

The museum’s head of education, Chris Nail, and educator Amanda Formby, in conjunction with museum staff and a statewide teacher advisory panel, are now expanding the program as The Humanities Project. This is funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

“Every year,” Nail says, “staff will work with scholars to create specialized [exhibition-and collection-related] content. We also want to include mechanisms for users to suggest new subject areas or improvements. We’re embracing the idea that this project will never actually be finished, that it’s a living thing.”

Yet efforts by museum educators to address concerns of diversity and inclusion in their programming are not always welcomed by visitors. As curators work to bring more historical and cultural perspectives to their exhibitions, docents have been confronted with uncomfortable comments about content. For example, at the New Mexico History Museum, insensitive questions have arisen about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past.

Christina McCorquodale, the museum’s education and engagement supervisor, and educator Nancy Morris-Judd have revised docent training to address this issue.

“We’re in a world today where people are feeling safe to say whatever they feel,” McCorquodale says. “Not everyone agrees, so how do we have those difficult conversations? Are we hearing each other? How do we make it productive?”

To give visitors an opportunity to express themselves, History Museum educators included a journaling engagement station in the recent Smithsonian traveling exhibition, Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II. Each journal was labeled with an exhibition-related question: Who holds power? How did this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? For younger visitors, an activity card asked simpler questions about belonging.

“The comments were interesting,” McCorquodale says. “People had cognitive shifts as they went from the beginning to the end of the exhibit. Hopefully, they read every word.”

Class Collaboration

The Museum of International Folk Art brings cultural education to classrooms through visiting artist partnerships funded by the Patricia Arscott La Farge Foundation for Folk Art, International Folk Art Alliance Inc. and individual donors via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

Museum school partnerships are designed to extend learning and a deeper engagement with folk art. This program provides youth the opportunity to develop empathy for people with different traditions and values than their own. Educators and teachers co-create a six-week, folk art-centered curriculum that brings local artists into the class-room to work closely on a long-term art project.

Community outreach and engagement coordinator Patricia Sigala and bilingual educator Kemely Gomez have worked with Abiquiu Elementary School, El Camino Real Academy, San Juan Elementary School , Mandela International Magnet School on projects ranging from printmaking to papier-mâché.

At Mandela, students worked with formerly incarcerated contemporary artist JP Granillo. “He was a mentor and role model for the high school students because he spoke from his experience genuinely,” says Sigala.

At El Camino Real, santero Arthur López gained an enthusiastic fan following among the sixth-grade boys. “They researched him and wanted to do the work he did,” says Gomez. “He was an inspiration for how they saw themselves.”

Site-Specific Learning

On a recent field trip to Los Luceros Historic Site, a group of third graders from Española explored the historic hacienda and then tromped through a field to the river, where they were each allowed to throw a rock into the water. “We were supposed to make adobe bricks, but they were so curious in the historic district that we ran out of time,” says Los Luceros instructional coordinator Rebecca Ward.

Like the other museums and historic sites, Los Luceros holds many of its educational activities on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free to state residents. The craft projects that Ward offers during the spring, summer and fall, including adobe brick making, are supported by Museum of New Mexico Foundation education funding.

Ward’s adobe brick recipe comes from Alexandra McKinney, instructional coordinator for the Taylor-Mesilla Historic Property and Fort Selden Historic Site. The educators work on opposite ends of the state but share ideas as well as the can-do spirit of educators across the eight historic sites, where most everything is experiential. They both maintain that adults have even more fun making the bricks than kids.“

When visitors come, or kids come on field trips, we want them to really experience what it’s like to be in the place. It’s very different from going to a museum,” McKinney says. “You’re at the place where something happened.”

Meanwhile, at the Office of Archaeological Studies, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara Pueblo) develops nationally recognized education programs based on requests from teachers, usually at pueblo and tribal schools, as well as for university researchers. Weahkee encourages young people to consider archaeology as a career, even though it’s rarely included among the “hard sciences” like biology and chemistry.

“It contains hard sciences, but archaeology is the study of human nature,” she says. “I call it looking at trash—items left on the ground that somebody discarded.”

Weahkee, who has been with the Office of Archeological Studies for 16 years, is known as “the yucca lady” because she teaches about traditional uses of the versatile plant. Although she didn’t learn about yucca growing up with her grandparents at Santa Clara Pueblo, she starting working with the durable fiber once she became an archaeologist, in what she calls a process of reverse engineering from the raw materials. At first, she just spun the yucca, but now she makes blankets, backpacks and ceremonial objects.

In her education role, Weahkee wants to preserve cultural knowledge as well as revive forgotten art forms. She teaches Indigenous children to spin yucca rope for their grandpar-ents. She also teaches university-level archaeology students how to make sandals—a lesson in craft that directly supports their fieldwork.

“When they find the remnants of a sandal, they know exactly why there’s the outside skin of it, or why there’s certain pieces laying to the side of it,” she explains. “Then you get the email back saying, ‘Guess what I found! If I didn’t do that course with you, I would’ve tossed it away as debris.”’


This image and article are from the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Member News Magazine Spring 2023.