Rewarding Curiosity: University Co-Creates Site Interpretation

What happens when you give 15 upper-division New Mexico Highlands University media arts students (almost) free reign to reimagine how stories are told at New Mexico’s eight historic sites? You get out-of-the-box ideas to enhance the visitor’s experience of history where it happened.

It’s the result of a unique partnership between New Mexico Historic Sites and Highlands’ Media Arts and Technology Department. For inspiration, cultural context and historical guidance, students consult with Pueblo elders, guest lecturers and site managers. The creative freedom to interpret history in new ways, says department chair Miriam Langer, encourages “students to approach projects from a fresh perspective.”

These perspectives are helping engage site visitors in ways never before imagined. For example, students have developed interactive computer “games” that make the sites more accessible. At Coronado Historic Site, visitors play SIM Pueblo, both digitally exploring and planting historic crops once grown there. Jemez Historic Site’s annual winter celebration, Light Among the Ruins, inspired a game in which players digitally place luminarias (paper sack lanterns) throughout the ruins, lighting a path to learn the site’s history.

Students also designed large-scale projection installations at both Coronado and Jemez, a cost-effective way to display rare objects.

Ethan Ortega, former manager at Los Luceros Historic Site, worked with students at both Coronado and Jemez. “Taking their cue from Pueblo elders’ stories, students took dated and static exhibits from the 1970s and transformed them into a dynamic visitor experience unlike any other historic site in the Southwest,” Ortega says.

“Simply put,” says New Mexico Historic Sites Deputy Director Matt Barbour, “site managers provide historical and cultural content and then step away, leaving it to Highlands’ students to create an interpretation that brings the content alive.”

In January 2023, a new student cohort from Highlands started tackling interpretation of Los Luceros Historic Site. Site manager Carlyn Stewart, who previously worked with students during her time as an intern at Jemez, says the students are “opening my eyes to the innovative ways they use space.”

Stewart says that when she and the students first met in November of 2022, she gave them the task of redesigning the site’s printed and text-heavy self-guided tour into one that is “artistic and fun to look at.” She also asked for a self-guided tour phone app that provides a deeper dive into the site’s history for more curious visitors. The app links QR codes at each of the site’s 12 featured areas of interest to videos, historical documents, original property maps and other relevant materials.

Stewart also suggested that students might take inspiration from a successful contemporary experiential model: Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf. “Since hacienda visitors are already opening cabinets, chests and peeking inside the stove, we might as well engage our inquisitive visitor,” she says.

Private gifts to the New Mexico Historic Sites Education and Exhibitions Development Funds via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation make all of these projects possible, providing support for unique partnerships in technological advancement and other exhibition upgrades. For Stewart, the end goal is clear. “Let learning about the sites come unexpectedly,” she says. “Let’s reward curiosity.”


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