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New $4M exhibit breathes life into ABQ’s history

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

This isn’t your grandfather’s history exhibit.

You won’t find regiments of faded military uniforms or rooms of frontier furniture or rows of obsolete farm implements – although there is a sampling of all that.

You will find Chester Nez, the late Navajo code talker, telling you how he prayed the traditional prayers of his people to help him endure the horrors of World War II.

You’ll zip along Central Avenue, catching snatches of conversation from the Frontier Restaurant as you whip by. You’ll smell the fresh, hot coffee and cherry pie served at Albuquerque’s razed, but fondly remembered, Alvarado Hotel.

This is the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History’s new, $4.4 million “Only in Albuquerque” exhibit, which opens to the public March 3. With this exhibit, which features four galleries titled Resourceful, Innovative, Spirited and Courageous, the museum at 2000 Mountain Road NW gives fresh meaning to the term living history.

The sights, sounds and odors of a bygone Albuquerque are vivid once more via videos, app-prompted supplemental stories, hands-on activities and a smell center in which aromas waft up from concealed, scent-infused blocks.

In an animated storybook feature in the Spirited Gallery, a figure from an iconic Old Town mural comes to life to talk about the diverse people who helped found Albuquerque. The storybooks – there are two in each of the exhibit’s four galleries – are aimed primarily at young visitors, but anyone watching them will be delighted and informed.

“We want people to be more engaged than just reading labels,” said Cathy L. Wright, museum director, as she provided a preview tour earlier this week.

No problem there. The biggest challenge facing visitors will be what to see or do next in a presentation that offers numerous interactive opportunities.

Route 66 postcards

For example, you can call up a display of old Route 66 postcards, flip them over electronically and read the original message written decades ago. Then you can choose one of the postcard designs, create your own message on a keypad and email it to someone.

This display  is part of "Only in Albuquerque" at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

This display is part of “Only in Albuquerque” at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

You can see the immense family shield of the Duke of Alburquerque, presented to the city in 1956 by the 18th duke. But you also can use an interactive program to create your family crest.

In a story booth feature, sponsored by the Albuquerque Journal, you can make film clips of your own Albuquerque story – family tales, memories, observations, impressions – some of which will be selected for inclusion in the exhibit.

Wright figures it will take the average person two to three hours to absorb the whole exhibit and that most people will need more than one visit to fully appreciate it all.

Funded by general obligation bonds and money raised by the museum’s foundation, the project took more than two years from conception to completion, several months longer than originally planned.

“When you have so many contractors and contracts, it is difficult to coordinate them,” Wright said. “It sort of gets bigger than you think. And there were some enhancements.”

The history exhibit is in addition to a $4 million museum renovation project also recently completed.

Blend of old and new

This display  is part of "Only in Albuquerque" at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

This display is part of “Only in Albuquerque” at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“Only in Albuquerque” replaces the museum’s previous history exhibit, which was 30 years old, but it also incorporates some of the items displayed in the earlier exhibit, such as the duke’s family shield and a mounted conquistador.

“But now he’s going to be joined by a Tiwa Indian leader and a Mexican Indian ally,” said Wright as she paused in front of the lonely conquistador and his steed. “They are coming this weekend.”

The idea of the new exhibit is to tell a vastly expanded and more accessible story of Albuquerque. According to Wright, 65 percent of the 120,000 people who visit the museum each year are from New Mexico or the region and are therefore invested in a story of a Southwest city.

“What we are really hoping is that people will be able to make a connection with something here and figure out how they fit into the bigger picture,” Wright said.

Four themed galleries

It all starts in the Our Land Gallery, which serves as the hub of the four themed galleries. This central gallery celebrates the beauty of the land and the role the land played in establishment of the community. The biggest attraction here – and perhaps in the entire exhibit – is an interactive floor map of the Albuquerque area with hot spots that can be activated by using an iPhone with the Albuquerque Museum app. When a hot spot is activated, you get more information about Old Town, Sandia Crest, Route 66, Isleta Pueblo, Kirtland Air Force Base, the Alvarado Hotel and others.

“The one we added at the last minute was ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” Wright said. “It is centered over an Octopus Car Wash that was featured in the series and it has (executive producer) Vince Gilligan talking about why Albuquerque is the perfect place for ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”

This display  is part of "Only in Albuquerque" exhibition. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

This display is part of “Only in Albuquerque” exhibition. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Visitors also may use the museum app to get additional information related to exhibits in the various galleries, the typewriter of famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example. Wright said people who don’t have an iPhone can check out an iPod with the museum app at the admissions desk.

You don’t need the app to watch the video featuring code talker Nez in the Courageous Gallery. War figures prominently in this gallery, but other kinds of courage are explored here, as well.

“It also talks about what it was like for Native children to be sent off to boarding school,” Wright said. “And it is about economic hardships, working through the Depression.”

The Innovative Gallery traces Albuquerque history from a farming and barter economy to an economy fueled by tourism, transportation, research and development. There are stories in the Resourceful Gallery about natural resources, but also about the resourcefulness of Albuquerque’s people.

The Spirited Gallery is about community, the blending of cultures, spirituality, family and food. Here, children can crank a chile roaster. There is no chile in the roaster – at least not yet. And there won’t be any fire.

“But we’re working on recreating the smell of roasting chile,” Wright said.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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