Taking the Archival Show on the Road: A New Mexico Story

By Dylan McDonald

For cultural heritage institutions, partnerships are the keystone to sustained, effective, and vibrant outreach efforts. In this era of ongoing staffing shortages, budget challenges, and employee burnout, organizations should focus on collaborative efforts, whenever possible and prudent, as a viable way to accomplish their core mission. The advantages realized when galleries, libraries, archives, and museums partner together can include access to new audiences and donors, development of new skills by participating staff, cost savings, and the expansion of outreach programming. While partnerships are not without their own challenges – particularly role delineation, communication channels, task deadlines, and desired outcomes – the resulting synergy is worth the risk. This essay will focus on one such effort in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands between a university library and a community museum.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico State University Library, home to the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) department, closed to the public on March 19, 2020 and all employees transitioned to working from home. Shortly thereafter, I noted in the local weekly newspaper an “Open Call for Submissions” notice placed by the Branigan Cultural Center (BCC), a city-operated museum in downtown Las Cruces. The BCC sought proposals for “cultural and historical significance” exhibits in their community gallery. I approached my ASC faculty colleague, Jennifer Olguin, about working together on the exhibit proposal. We both agreed an exhibition at the BCC afforded a timely opportunity to partner with our nearby museum colleagues and showcase ASC archival materials to those outside the NMSU environment.

Place and Re-Place: Las Cruces Urban Renewal, 1960-1975. October 15, 2021 - January 15, 2022. Exhibit postcard, with a view of the corner of Main Street and Griggs Avenue, looking east (New Mexico State University Library Archives & Special Collections, Ms0478 Las Cruces Urban Renewal Agency records).
Exhibit postcard, with a view of the corner of Main Street and Griggs Avenue, looking east (New Mexico State University Library Archives & Special Collections, Ms0478 Las Cruces Urban Renewal Agency records).

Selecting the focus of any exhibition can prove difficult, yet Jennifer and I quickly settled on a topic that we believed would meet the call for proposals: Las Cruces urban renewal. ASC holds the records of the Las Cruces Urban Renewal Agency (LCURA), a complex collection that documents the story of urban decay and growth, class and racial tension, and public engagement and civic identity. Visually robust with hundreds of photographs, maps, charts, and graphs, the collection easily captures the attention of anyone who engages with it. Using the LCURA records as the anchor for a visually appealing and historically rich exhibit on the city’s urban redevelopment efforts would certainly be a draw at the museum. Jennifer had experience providing access to the collection, while I had used portions of the records while teaching library instructional sessions to NMSU students. We both felt the collection was underutilized and hoped an exhibit focused on the topic would prompt increased use. In the absence of a standalone museum dedicated to the history of the city, Doña Ana County, and the greater Mesilla Valley, we also hoped the exhibit would show the university library as a trusted partner in preserving local history.

We submitted an exhibit proposal that focused on the urban renewal efforts in downtown Las Cruces during the 1960s and 1970s, and the resulting trauma wrought on the city’s architectural, cultural, and historical landscapes. The exhibit would use only material from ASC and be produced and assembled on campus and transported to the BCC for installation. It would contain full-frame reproductions of 24 images mounted on 16” by 24” foam core boards accompanied by captions. We decided to include a small audiovisual component on a monitor in the display area, a five-minute slide show of additional images overlaid with an oral history sound clip of several longtime Las Crucens talking about the impact of urban renewal on the city. We suggested that the exhibit run in the fall of 2021. On May 8, 2020, we submitted our two-page proposal and anxiously waited to hear back from the BCC staff.

Ten months passed before we learned of the fate of our proposal, an extended delay due to the museum itself being closed by COVID-19 precautions. The museum’s review committee wanted our exhibit to open on October 15, 2021, less than six months away. Given the green light, albeit with an accelerated timeline, Jennifer and I approached the exhibit with some trepidation. We recognized that the feelings and emotions regarding the downtown urban renewal projects were still raw and palpable, even fifty years later. The project demanded our best effort as public historians.

To tell this Las Cruces story, we first had to dive into the context of urban renewal and the explosive growth of the city, post-WWII. Guided by the published work of historians Hannah Wolberg and Raymond Sandoval, we made sense of the case files, property surveys and maps, legal and financial records, and meeting minutes and correspondence discovered in the archival collection.[i]  The amount of time spent in research easily outpaced the rest of the labor required to finalize the exhibit. Our research produced a list of potential themes, individuals, groups, and events that were too long to cover in one display. We narrowed our exhibit to focus on the stated purpose and economic priorities of the urban renewal projects, the resulting disruption to the community, and the loss of its architectural heritage. The exhibit concluded with the legacy of the city’s redevelopment efforts.

Exhibit curators Dylan McDonald and Jennifer Olguin in the Richardson Gallery, Branigan Cultural Center, November 5, 2021 (courtesy of author).
Exhibit curators Dylan McDonald and Jennifer Olguin in the Richardson Gallery, Branigan Cultural Center, November 5, 2021 (courtesy of author).

We met numerous times with our colleagues at the BCC, curators Jennifer McClung and Christopher Macmahon, to coordinate the exhibit installation and marketing efforts. Their professional feedback regarding the exhibit themes helped us decide to include a comment station for gallery visitors. We also translated the exhibit captions into Spanish and, with their encouragement, made minor revisions to the layout and placement of the exhibit images in the Richardson Gallery. Additionally, we ended up digitizing a few dozen archival documents to include as a supplemental resource to the images in the exhibit – we are archivists after all!  If a visitor was interested in learning more than what was presented on the gallery walls, they could flip through one of two identical binders and match the numbered image on the wall to the corresponding tabbed sections of documents in the binder to discover more details.

Pandemic protocols saw the formal exhibit opening cancelled due to that rising positive cases of COVID-19 in Doña Ana County, and our planned onsite presentation on November 17, 2021, was moved to Zoom and Facebook. Jennifer and I later appeared on a local community radio station and also gave three other community presentations on the subject over the following months. The response by the BCC staff and those who visited the exhibit during its three-month run was overwhelmingly positive. While we had hoped for more written responses in our comment station, gauging the community reaction mainly came through anecdotal stories passed on to us by museum staff, ASC patrons, and library supporters. The hoped-for rush to use the LCURA records has yet to materialize. Still, McClung reiterated her desire to partner with ASC on future exhibits. When the BCC call for proposals went out in April 2022, we were contacted directly and invited to submit our ideas.

Enthusiastically supported by our department head, Jennifer and I are currently planning a fall 2023 exhibit with the BCC to showcase the Amador family papers, the focal point of the NMSU Library’s recently awarded $350,000 NEH digitization grant. The new skills learned and honed in creating the previous exhibit along with the positive feedback and support received have use anxious to continue this partnership.

[i] Hannah R. Wolberg, “An Evolving Main Street: The Impact of Urban Renewal on Downtown Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1966-1974” (thesis, University of New Mexico, 2011); and Raymond Sandoval, “Intrusion and Domination: A Study of the Relationship of Chicano Development to the Exercise and Distribution of Power in a Southwestern Community, 1870-1974” (dissertation, University of Washington, 1980).

Dylan McDonald

Dylan McDonald is the Political Collections Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at New Mexico State University. Before coming to the NMSU, Dylan worked as the deputy city historian and manuscripts archivist at the Center for Sacramento History and taught at California State University, Sacramento. He earned his MA in History from Boise State University and is a certified archivist. Dylan is an active member of the Society of American Archivists, the Society of Southwest Archivists, and the National Council on Public History.