PECOS – When visitors walk through the Pecos National Historical Park visitor center, they’re only getting part of the story.
The current exhibition space, a timeline of the park area’s history dating back 10,000 years with authentic pots and other artifacts preserved in glass boxes, is primarily focused on the park’s Pecos Pueblo sites and the massive ruins of an old mission church. Those were the main narrative themes when the park was established as a national monument in 1987 – the same year the exhibit was created and the last time it was updated.
According to Becky Latanich, the park’s chief of interpretation and education, the Pecos monument became a historical park in 1990 – and since then it has covered other topics, including the Battle of Glorieta Pass during the Civil War, the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail and Route 66, dude ranching and resources such as the Pecos River.
“They come here (the visitors center) and they think they’ve gotten a nice overview of what the park is about, but they haven’t,” Latanich said.
And the current art-gallery feel of the exhibit, Latanich said, doesn’t capture the attention of kids and families, a group that the Pecos site and the National Park Service want to better engage.
To update the visitor’s center exhibit and help attract a broader crowd, Pecos is taking on a nearly $1 million, three-year project to transform it. A request for design proposals will be sent nationwide with the help of a NPS media support office.
One of the most important changes for Latanich is making the space more interactive. This could include anything from a place to leave comments to more “kinesthetic,” or touchable, exhibits that can appeal to more learning styles.
“We’re really trying to avoid boring interactives like ‘lift this panel,’ ” she said. “We want really meaningful things, so maybe grinding corn with a mano and metate, making your own pottery (or) art in some capacity.”
She also mentioned possibly adding a reconstructed pueblo room visitors can walk into.
Latanich noted the existing exhibit predates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The new one will be ADA-compliant. “It wasn’t at the forefronts of people’s minds as it is now,” she said.
One important change for inclusivity would be shifting the panels in the glass cases for artifacts to be angled instead of flat; Latanich said the flat panels are difficult for people in wheelchairs to read. And there could be more space between artifacts because some of the cases are too close together for people with disabilities to move through.
Based on recent feedback, Latanich said, park staff knows visitors enjoy the timeline aspect of the current exhibit as well as its dioramas and authentic pots. Those elements will remain in some context, she said, but she would like to see a less text-heavy timeline or “layered text,” which allows interested guests to access additional reading materials that are not immediately visible.
And while people enjoy the timeline, it stops at 1888. It is missing several stories at the park including the beginnings of nearby Route 66, the Kozlowski Trading Post (a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail) and Forked Lightning Ranch, the home of actress Greer Garson.
These are pieces of history, Latanich said, that some locals may still remember or have heard about in family stories.
“We want it to be a place where they see their stories represented in the exhibits,” she said. “So they can come and it doesn’t feel like it’s about somebody else – it’s about the people of Pecos.” The current-day village of Pecos is just north of the park.
Topics like the Civil War’s Glorieta Pass battle have also become increasingly popular points of interest, said park superintendent Karl Cordova. “It was such a decisive and important battle, but people don’t know much about it,” he said
He wants the educational materials at the start of the park to match what exists throughout. That will allow visitors to know more about what they’re seeing before they hit the trails or go on a guided tour, such as Civil War site tour.
“We understand it’s our role to be the premier educator,” he said. “We need to be prepared.”
The project financing comes from an NPS funding stream, Latanich said. Pecos had to apply for the funding, which it is receiving in increments each year, back in 2012. Back then, staff only applied for $550,000. Now, with an up-to-date cost estimate, she says the Pecos park will have to get the remaining funding from what’s left over from other NPS enhancement projects.
While it isn’t the primary reason for updating the space, Cordova said he expects a better exhibit to increase visitation. Latanich estimates the park will get about 42,000 visitors this year, an increase from the 40,500 that came from August 2016 through July 2017.
Since the park eliminated its $7 entrance fee last year, Cordova said he has seen more local families coming to the park. Some tell staff that they have lived in San Miguel County their entire lives and weren’t aware of some of the area’s major historical moments.
“And we want to turn the page on that,” Cordova said. “And get our youngest generation familiar about what’s so special about their backyard.”