Blazing New Trails

Ambitious new inroads are connecting today’s tech-savvy history buffs with New Mexico’s tried-and-true Historic Sites.

Living historians demonstrate the operation of historic cannons during Fort Stanton LIVE! Photograph by Kenneth Walter.
BY PATRICK MOORE

New Mexico enjoys one of the most complex and culturally rich histories of any state in the union. From its geographical wonders, dinosaurs, and volcanos to its Native pueblos, Spanish missions, Western forts, and even rocket- and atomic bomb-testing sites, its past ranges from ancient to relatively recent. Within this treasured array, New Mexico’s Historic Sites shine. 

As part of the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs, New Mexico Historic Sites share a common goal with DCA’s history-oriented museums: to communicate the state’s past to visitors. But New Mexico’s Historic Sites’ primary mission is to present and preserve history in the locations where historic events occurred. Legendary New Mexico history swirls around our Historic Sites. Every year, for example, tens of thousands of fascinated travelers flock to Lincoln to explore the very buildings and streets where L.G. Murphy and John Tunstall squared off in what began as a scuffle over resources and economic freedom, but ultimately erupted into a full-blown war. The 1878 Lincoln County War culminated in Billy the Kid’s dramatic escape from Tunstall’s burning home. 

As director of this division, my goal isn’t just to share that historic events happened here, but why they matter and hold significance to each of us today. It’s easy for those of us who devote our lives to history to lose sight of the finer points of the present moment, like how people want to engage with history. That’s why I’m excited that we’ve begun to use new engagement and storytelling methods, which are attracting new and returning visitors, helping them make connections and creating profound moments of in-depth understanding. 

In 1931, the state legislature passed the Act for the Preservation of the Scientific Resources of New Mexico. This created the foundation for establishing State Monuments. In the years that followed, the legislature approved sixteen such sites. Over the decades, some became National Monuments. Today, the Historic Sites Division, renamed in 2013, oversees the preservation and public access to seven Historic Sites and two historic properties: Coronado and Jemez Historic Sites in the Northern Region; Fort Sumner Historic Site/Bosque Redondo Memorial in the Eastern Region, Lincoln and Ft. Stanton Historic Sites in the Central Mountain Region; Ft. Selden Historic Site, the Mesilla–J. Paul Taylor at Historic Property, and El Camino Real Historic Trail Site in the Southern Region; and the Los Luceros Historic Property in Alcalde, just north of Española, New Mexico. 

This effort consists of a 35-member staff that serves tens of thousands of annual guests, at sites covering thousands of acres, containing more than 150 individual buildings, and disconnected by hundreds of miles. To tell these stories, we also produce public programming, exhibits, and large-scale annual events. Topping it off, in addition to working hand-in-hand with the State Historic Preservation Division to protect and conserve those buildings where historic events actually happened, we also maintain grounds, irrigation ditches, restrooms, utilities, roads, walkways, and even active cemeteries. It’s nothing short of monumental.

Faced with this considerable challenge and the need to reconsider New Mexico Historic Sites’ long-term approach, DCA Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales decided to reshape the division and its operations in late 2015. Secretary Gonzales hired me in the fall of 2016 to work with her on this ambitious yet pragmatic mission. 

As a public historian who focuses on history’s application in museums, historic preservation, policy planning, and more, I developed my skills earning BAs and an MA at New Mexico State University, and a PhD at Arizona State University. My graduate work focused on a collection of New Mexico-related interpretive, preservation, and governmental policy-related projects, ranging from exhibits and oral history programs to policy reviews and environmental studies. After serving as director of the Arizona Historical Society’s Oral History Program, I spent eighteen years directing a graduate public history program in Florida. One of my central goals as a professor and practitioner was to underscore the value and significance of history. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not satisfied just to share that things happened—I want people to understand why they matter and hold significance to each of us in the present. 

One of my first endeavors with New Mexico’s Historic Sites was to begin incorporating a new set of best practices into the sites’ operations. Building on distinctive history, each site had dedicated and capable staff along with solid exhibits and programming, but the sites reflected a traditional, mid-twentieth-century approach to presenting history. When visitors arrived, they encountered exhibits, tours, and programs that provided a specific history of the events that occurred at that particular location. For most audiences, this was enough. 

By the turn of this century, however, people connected to a new age of technology that offered access to digital information. With the arrival of mobile devices and streaming data, that same information suddenly became available anytime and almost anywhere. As this happened, those of us in the museum world found ourselves trying to use old storytelling approaches with visitors that had an entirely new set of expectations. 

One prime example of this materialized while I was a NASA Fellow Historian at Kennedy Space Center. At one time, KSC visitors reveled in simple displays of rockets and flight hardware, and felt euphoria on the bus ride out to see the Apollo pads at Launch Complex 39 (complete with port-a-potties at the viewing stand). But with the growth of the nearby Orlando tourist attractions, people’s expectations dramatically changed. Next to the technology and make-believe magic of Disney and Universal Studios, and despite the reality of NASA, visitors found that a trip to the Space Coast became increasingly bland and sterile. 

In order to remain relevant, the Space Center had to change. And it did. Staff executed a massive makeover of the visitor complex, adding a modern Shuttle Launch Experience ride and the state-of-the-art Apollo/Saturn V Center, which leads guests through the Cold War to the simulated, 1968 launch of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. Kennedy Space Center was still sharing the same historic facts about the decades-old space race, but their delivery is most certainly of the twenty-first century.  

Whereas the Historic Sites were once the primary destination for learning about an area’s story, over the decades, other venues that also told historic narratives emerged. We realized that our visitors might easily choose to go to the International Balloon Museum instead of Coronado Historic Site. Like the Disney vs. Kennedy Space Center scenario (granted, with considerably different visitor numbers and budgets) it was no longer enough just to be located where historic events occurred. Historic Sites needed to upgrade and accentuate the quality and significance of its offerings. 

In the summer 2016, prior to my arrival, the Department of Cultural Affairs executed a significant restructuring of the Historic Sites Division. In an effort to increase professional and cost efficiencies and to establish a foundation that would bridge the historic narratives between sites, the division shifted to a regional management model. Instead of ten individual managers overseeing ten individual sites, four managers now oversee operations in four distinct regions, with interpretation and education specialists to support the new approach at each site. Somewhat mirroring the design of the National Park Service, this approach fosters stronger inter-site collaboration and frees up resources to improve overall education, outreach, and historical interpretation. Regional sites are now working together to actively tell the history of the state across multiple locations. This has increased our ability to leverage limited resources and strategically collaborate with local and federal partners.

As an example, Historic Sites is now actively working with the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region, the Bureau of Land Management, the El Camino Real Friends Group, and even the Texas Historic Commission to develop a joint interpretive plan for telling the El Camino Real history. Prior to the reorganization, El Camino Real was interpreted only at the El Camino Real Historic Site Trail between Truth or Consequences and Socorro, which, due to its geographical remoteness, suffered from very low visitation and extremely high operating and maintenance costs. DCA continues to negotiate with the city of Socorro regarding this site. We’re now able to share this essential part of New Mexico’s—and North America’s—history along the entire trail, which connects to six Historic Sites and Department of Cultural Affairs locations, as well as within engaged communities like Socorro, and many others. 

Despite the immediate challenges associated with implementing this new structure, the long-term payoffs are already proving to be successful. Central to this success was Secretary Gonzales’ commitment to fill vacant positions and support the managers with education and historic interpretation specialists. True to her word, by the end of the calendar year, Historic Sites was fully staffed. 

Working as an integrated team, the regional managers and I set about identifying the range of operational goals within the system: everything from identifying broader interpretive themes to connect the sites across the state (such as indigenous cultures, the entire El Camino Real route, US Federal Forts, and Billy the Kid), to more mundane but essential operational demands like water testing, HVAC repairs, tractor use, emergency response steps, and even Churro sheep breeding. Together we built a foundation for developing a clear and well-defined plan for the near future. 

In October, Lord Cultural Resources, the same external firm that is currently developing a design for the New Mexico History Museum, began the first steps in executing a strategic planning process that integrates insights from our staffs, friends groups, tribal members, fellow DCA divisions, the New Mexico Museum Foundation, and other stakeholders to define a coherent map for the future. Building on our recent progress at Fort Sumner Historic Site and Bosque Redondo Memorial, we will develop and integrate interpretive plans for each site. This will provide a solid strategy for communicating New Mexico’s remarkable past with the diverse spectrum of visitors, while preserving its historic resources. 

Since the restructuring, we have witnessed a number of important successes. These accomplishments encompass innovative new programming, dynamic exhibits, the preservation of our historic structures, invaluable collaborations, and even the re-opening of long-closed facilities. Although we are only part way through our second year under this redesigned approach, this new course is already helping Historic Sites to reach the broadest audience and be wiser stewards of all of our resources—preservation, financial, human—while telling New Mexico’s story.  

Patrick Moore is the director of New Mexico Historic Sites. Previously director of public history at the University of West Florida, Moore also conducted projects for the Soil Conservation Service, the United States Navy at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, NOAA, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and others.