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Museum revived for 75th anniversary

SANTA FE — The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is expanding just in time for its 75th anniversary.

About 50 visitors and supporters celebrated recently with cake and champagne and a virtual tour through the planned addition.

The hogan-shaped museum, founded in 1937 by Mary Cabot Wheelwright, launched a fundraising campaign for the project, then shut it down when the economy collapsed. It was revived in 2010.

“It’s all private money,” museum director Jonathan Batkin said of the effort. “We have no support from any government funding in Santa Fe.”

Contributors came from across the nation, he added, with museum trustees giving half. To date, organizers have raised $2.9 million toward a $3 million goal.

The two-story addition will add 7,000-square-feet to the museum’s southwest corner. The structure will include exhibition space, curation and storage space, new bathrooms and a classroom, Batkin said.

The new exhibition space will give the museum a spot for permanent exhibits, he added. The space will provide visitors with something to see between exhibitions. It can take from one month to 10 weeks to tear down and erect new shows, Batkin said.

The exhibit room will likely focus on Native American jewelry, long a prime goal of the Wheelwright collection. Larger museums dedicated to Native arts span everything from rugs and pottery to carvings and beadwork.

“In all the other institutions, it’s just sort of a footnote,” he explained. “It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, they also made jewelry.'”

Exhibits will include the tools and techniques used, as well as the traditions driving them.

“Some of it will be silver; some of it will be like the Santo Domingo” thunderbird jewelry, pieced together using remnants of old battery casings, Batkin said.

The museum already has undergone a makeover with the restoration of the original building. Jeff Seres, of the Santa Fe branch of the Albuquerque-based Studio Southwest Architects, led the project. Workers tore off the 1970s-style yellow stucco to reveal three layers of “pen tile” –– ceramic brick tiles made by inmates of the New Mexico Penitentiary.

“It was generally a very poor job and the wrong color,” Batkin said. “So we peeled that back to get the original color — it’s a darker brown. It had a nice hand-tooled texture, so we replicated that.”

Workers also added insulation and replaced the roof, adding a waterproof membrane using a custom mix of stucco. The building’s entire electrical system was replaced. Landscape architect Kenneth Francis of the Santa Fe-based Surroundings has been working on removing invasive species in favor of more native grasses to the museum’s eight-acre campus.

“That’s going to be a long-term project,” Batkin said.

All of the new structure will be comprised of cast concrete and stucco.

Construction is slated to begin over the next several months, with an approximate occupation date slated for August 2014.

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