Visit the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe

This post on the Museum of New Mexico was originally published . It was completely revised and republished on July 21, 2016.

Santa Fe has at least a dozen museums and over two hundred galleries. That’s a lot of art, history and culture for a small city. Four of the museums are state-run under the umbrella of the Museum of New Mexico under the auspices of New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. Two of the museums are located downtown and two are on Museum Hill, southeast of downtown. The two downtown museums, adjacent to the historic Santa Fe Plaza, are the New Mexico History Museum (which includes the Palace of the Governors) and the New Mexico Museum of Art. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) and the International Museum of Folk Art are up on Museum Hill. Here’s a brief tour of all four museums.

Museum of New Mexico downtown locations

 New Mexico History Museum

Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe - Entrance to the New Mexico History Museum photo Steve Collins

Entrance to the New Mexico History Museum photo Steve Collins

The New Mexico History Museum opened in May of 2009. For the century prior to that adjoining Palace of the Governors had served as the state’s history museum. It was fitting that the oldest continuously occupied public building in the USA served as a repository for the state’s rich history. The building housed NM’s governors from Spanish Colonial times through the late 19th century. It was where Territorial Governor Lew Wallace penned Ben Hur.

The museum’s core installation, Telling New Mexico, Stories from Then and Now, is a timeline of over 500 years of the state’s history told in six segments starting with the indigenous peoples. The tale progresses through Spanish and Mexican rule, to life as a U.S. territory and on to statehood. It culminates in a section on present-day life in the Land of Enchantment. There’s also a long-term exhibition on Fred Harvey, the man and the company that brought tourism to the southwest. There is a lot to see and do at the NM History Museum, including interactive exhibits. The museum also mounts short-term exhibits. It also has an auditorium for special events (check the museum’s calendar for events), and a gift shop.

The Palace of the Governors, located around the corner at the north end of the Plaza, is part of the history museum and accessed with the same admission ticket. It houses two long-term exhibitions; Treasures of Devotion/Tesoros de Devoción and the Segesser Hide Paintings. Tesoros has a collection of New Mexico-created Spanish Colonial religious art including bultos (carvings of saints), retablos (religious paintings) and crucifijos (crosses) dating from the late 1700s to 1900. The hide paintings, whose origin is unknown, are according to the museum, “rare examples of the earliest known depictions of colonial life in the United States.”  The palace print shop and bindery, an active printing operation and collection of printing presses and paraphernalia, and the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library are also part of the Palace of the Governors.

New Mexico Museum of Art

Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe - The courtyard at the Pueblo Rival-style New Mexico Museum of Art photo Steve Collins

The courtyard at the Pueblo Rival-style New Mexico Museum of Art photo Steve Collins

Housed in a pueblo-style building dating from 1917, The New Mexico Museum of Art, on Palace Avenue adjacent to the Plaza, was the state’s first art museum. The building itself is significant. Designed by Rapp and Rapp based on the Spanish mission at pueblos such as Acoma and Laguna, it inspired the Pueblo Revival architectural movement in Santa Fe. The core collection made up of works by southwest artists, has a concentration on New Mexico artists dating to around 1880. Some of the better known artists in the collection are Georgia O’Keeffe, Elliot Porter, Gerald Cassidy, Gustave Baumann, William Penhallow Henderson, Peter Herd, Fritz Scholder and San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez.

They also present short-term exhibits, many of these are traveling exhibits mounted by museums across the country and the world. Take time to look at the six murals on the walls of the building’s courtyard. They were painted by Will Shuster in 1934 as part of the Federal government’s depression era Federal Emergency Administration (FERA) Program. They “honor the spiritual, ceremonial and agricultural traditions of the Pueblo Indians.” The museum’s Saint Francis Auditorium, an intimate concert venue hosts concerts throughout the year. It is one of the concert spaces used by the annual New Mexico Chamber Music Festival. Throughout the year the museum also holds special events including concerts, lectures and children’s programs. Check their calendar for details.

The Museum of New Mexico on Museum Hill

Two branches of the Museum if New Mexico sit atop Millman Plaza on Museum Hill. The sunset views from the plaza are spectacular but the real point of coming up here is visiting the International Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC). This is a great setting for these two jewels in the Museum of New Mexico crown. Climb the steps (or take the elevator) from the parking lot to the Plaza and take your pick. MIAC’s to the left and Folk Art is on your right. You can do both in one trip; bring a picnic lunch in warm weather.

Folk Art Museum

Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe - One of the enchanting dioramas at the International Museum of Folk Art photo Steve Collins

One of the enchanting dioramas at the Museum of International Folk Art photo/Steve Collins

The largest collection of folk art in the world makes its home at the Museum of  International Folk Art, opened in 1953. Its collection encompasses over 150,000 pieces of folk art and is the largest of its kind in the world. The Girard Wing, opened in 1982, is home to a permanent exhibit: Multiple Visions: A Common Bond. The colorful collection, donated by renowned architect and interior and textile designer Alexander Girard and his wife, boasts folk art from over 100 countries on six continents. Only about 10% of his vast connection, which includes toys and dolls, costumes, masks, textiles of all kinds, religious folk art, paintings, beadwork, and more is on display. Much of the collection is a series of dioramas populated by miniatures. Kids love the Girard Wing; you will too if you have a sense of whimsy. I always leave smiling. One day while standing by a case that held angels and devils a young boy excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy, mommy, there’s angels and devils, where’s God?”

The Hispanic Heritage Wing features changing exhibitions related to both Hispanic and Latino cultures. In addition, the museum mounts short-term exhibits of folk art from the USA and around the world in its other galleries. Stop by their colorful gift shop; it’s packed with handcrafted items from around the world.

Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe - The entrance to Museum of Indian Arts and Culture photo Steve Collins

The entrance to Museum of Indian Arts and Culture photo/Steve Collins

Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC) is at the north end Milner Plaza. The museum’s mission is “to inspire appreciation for and knowledge of the diverse native arts, histories, languages, and cultures of the Greater Southwest.” There are two long-term exhibits: Here, Now, and Always, a timeline of Native American history from pre-Columbian times to the present and the Buchsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery, dedicated to the pottery traditions of the Pueblo People of New Mexico and Arizona. Here, Now, and Always is the result of an eight year collaboration among Native American elders, artists, scholars, teachers, writers and museum professionals. Listen to the recorded interviews with fifty Native Americans speaking about their culture and history.

The second long-term exhibition, the Buchsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery, a timeline of its own, contains a wide range of pueblo pottery from some of the earliest discoveries to contemporary works. The museum mounts short-term exhibitions as well. The focus can be on specific artists or various aspects of Native American art and culture. Don’t miss the Colleen Cloney Duncan Museum Shop, a curated collection of handcrafted American Indian art including jewelry, pottery, kachinas, and rugs. They also stock a selection of books on Native Americans and their culture as well as inexpensive yet tasteful souvenirs.

Nuts and bolts of visiting  Museum of New Mexico museums

All locations of the Museum of New Mexico are open from 10a.m. to 5p.m. and closed on Mondays (except between Memorial and Labor Days when they’re open seven days a week) and there is an admission charge. The downtown museums are open free of charge on Friday evenings from 5p.m. to 8p.m. New Mexico residents are admitted free to all State Museums on first Sunday of the month. NM seniors are admitted free on Wednesdays. The Culture Pass, good for a year, offers one admission each to 14 New Mexico State Museums as well as state-run monuments throughout New Mexico. Annual memberships are also available.

The Museum of New Mexico offers a diverse representation of the history, art and culture of the Land of Enchantment. Put one or all on your Santa Fe itinerary. If you live here, see them all!

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