Encounters: El Norte?The Spanish and Mexican North

Museum of the American West exhibit opens August 1

By Yadhira De Leon
Published on LatinoLA: July 9, 2004

Encounters: El Norte?The Spanish and Mexican North

An exciting new exhibition opens in the Museum of the American West?s Showcase Gallery this summer on August 1, 2004. In Encounters: El Norte?The Spanish and Mexican North, the Autry National Center brings together the collections of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of the American West, each contributing to the story of the Spanish and Mexican north. Indian artifacts from the Southwest will enhance this story of encounters, and the Southwest?s complementary collections of Hispanic material also will be integrated into the gallery?from California mission paintings to the guitar given by Miguel de la Guerra to his fianc?e Trinidad Ortega in the 1850s.

But the installation isn?t quite completed. El Norte is the first in a three-part series of exhibitions that are designed to gather visitor input and comments that will inform a later permanent installation called ?Encounters.? Starting August 1, visitors will experience a dynamic, changing exhibition that presents a fascinating topic but also solicits feedback on object selection, text length, visual environment, storyline, and other details.

This unusual and innovative approach to evaluating our work begins a multiyear project to reinterpret the museum?s permanent galleries. The first step will be the installation of two new galleries, Encounters and Journeys, which will tell the story of the West through the 1860s. The Encounters Gallery will explore the first meetings between Indians and Europeans from 1492 through the following 350 years, when diverse peoples, plants, animals, and even microbes from different continents were introduced. In the region?s unique landscape, people from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa traded goods and ideas, fought and stole from each other, created mixed families and cultures, and transformed the land. Along the way, they told new stories to make sense of the changes. From these encounters, in this place, the complicated and fascinating West of our day emerged.

This summer?s installment is designed to test some of our plans for the Encounters Gallery. El Norte tells the long history of the Spanish in the West. Spanish explorers wandered Texas and New Mexico only fifty years after Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, and for two centuries they were the only European settlers in what is now the United States. Some came to get rich, others to spread their religion, and still others to settle with their families. They brought their animals and plants, language and laws, religion and art. In the north, Spanish people met dynamic and diverse people who had lived there for thousands of years. El Norte examines how that encounter changed them both. This installment represents one part of the Encounters Gallery. It will be followed by two other test installations?one exploring the fur trade and the other the American frontier.

One of the keystones of our experimental gallery is the presence of a specially trained exhibition evaluator. Evaluating a museum exhibition while it is in the various stages of development is standard practice, but working this closely with museum visitors to create the best possible exhibitions that address their interests and concerns is a hallmark of the Autry National Center?s evolving role as a model institution dedicated to visitor engagement and participation. Here, then, is your chance to play the role of museum curator or educator.

El Norte will have a few highlight areas to encourage visitor exploration and comments. Stepping inside the gallery, visitors will first observe a multimedia presentation bringing to life the first encounters. Another short film examines the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which Pueblo peoples of New Mexico rebelled against the Spanish and staged the most successful Indian uprising in North American history. A visual time line with related objects bisects the gallery and highlights pivotal moments, starting with the great trading cultures of the Southwest before contact and ending with the Spanish and Mexican legacy in nineteenth-century Los Angeles. Since the inception of this project, attention has been carefully paid to the physical and intellectual accessibility of both the space and content. A number of sections include family-friendly text and hands-on replicas as well as a full-size replica of a Santa Fe family?s home from the 1830s. Working with a panel of advisors, museum staff has paid close attention to the needs of visitors with special visual, hearing, or mobility requirements. One section of the gallery will include a Learning Laboratory with floor plans, photographs, sample stories, computer kiosks, and other pieces that guests can explore and comment on. The evaluator will work with visitors to test the success of each of these unique exhibition elements.

Please stop by this year to explore and test out our experiments?have fun, and be sure to tell us what you think!

About Yadhira De Leon:
Find out more about Encounters: El Norte?The Spanish and Mexican North by visiting the Museum of the American West?s website at www.autrynationalcenter.org.

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