Ancient history gets new digs
New Mesa Verde Visitor Center brings it all to one place
No more artifacts moldering in the “Tin Shed.” No more storing archives in nooks and crannies. No more driving a long, narrow, winding road to learn what Mesa Verde National Park has to offer.
After decades of fundraising and lobbying, and five months after a “soft” opening, the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center will hold its grand opening Thursday morning.
“What we hope to accomplish is to help people plan their trip to the park, to excite them and give them lots of questions that they have to visit the park to answer,” said Mesa Verde collection curator Tara Travis. “Before, especially for people who got here later in the day, they had to drive all the way up to the park to see what’s here.”
The 23,620-square-foot building is divided into two sections: the 7,364-square-foot Visitor Center and the 16,256-square-foot Research Center.
The original government estimate for the project was $22 million, but the final cost was $16.5 million. Money came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a line item on the National Park Service budget and a number of foundations and individual donors, including the Mesa Verde Foundation, which purchased the land on which the center sits.
The design took into account the many purposes the building must serve.
On the Visitor Center side, that means interactive exhibits, an information desk, a Mesa Verde Association store with a much-needed merchandise warehouse, a conference room for use by community organizations, windows into the artifact repository and processing rooms where the public can learn more about that side of archaeology, and a place to purchase tickets for tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House.
“No more waiting in the sun to buy tickets,” Travis said with a smile, “and people don’t have to get up to the park at the crack of dawn to get them.”
Former Chief of Interpretation Tessy Shirakawa, and current Supervisory Ranger Rose Marie Salazar worked hard to make the information accessible and accurate.
“We have a map and a model of Spruce Tree House for the visually impaired so they can feel the topography,” Travis said. “The dioramas built by the Civilian Conservation Corps at the Chapin Mesa Museum have been so popular, we had to find a way that was sensitive and appropriate to do what they did, put the people in the landscape, because that’s the only thing that’s missing at Mesa Verde.”
Their solution was to create life-size mannequins of ancestral Puebloans performing common tasks such as farming and grinding corn on metates. They used faces created from masks of the ancestral Puebloans’ living descendants, members of 26 modern Native American tribes who call New Mexico and Arizona home.
The Research Center side is just as diverse. There are designated spaces for a library, park archives, an isolation room to make sure new additions to the collection aren’t bringing insect infestations or other contaminants into the repository, a processing room and storage — lots of storage — for the 3 million artifacts, countless maps, traditional garb and other items from modern-day tribal descendants, natural specimens in the collection, including fossils, and five freezers for photo negatives.
A BIG JOB
When Travis was hired as the new curator in 2010, her predecessor, Carolyn Landes, had laid some groundwork. But Travis’ first job was a big one.
“I have friends who say they would rather do anything than pack for three years,” she said. “And then, to top it off, last summer, my husband and I bought a house after living in park housing, so we had to move our personal stuff, too.”
Fragile artifacts require special packing. The National Park Service conservator identified numerous items in the collection that were so fragile, staff and volunteers had to be specially trained, Travis said.
Each individual item, particularly the ceramics, requires slow and methodical packing, including foam in the bottom of boxes, stuffed “snakes” to rest it on, acid-free archival tissue and lots of bubble wrap. The budget for packing materials alone is about $6,000, and that’s with borrowing from other National Park Service museums and reusing materials as the packing and unpacking continues in stages.
“We’ve been so lucky in our volunteers,” Travis said. “We have one Iraq war veteran who builds models, so he knows how to use an Exacto knife and glue gun to build storage supports, and another volunteer who drove over from Durango. He had an archaeological background, and his father owned a moving company, so he’s been great at logistics.”
Perhaps the happiest volunteer has been Trina Lindig, who lives in Mancos.
“When she was a kid, her parents excavated a lot of these artifacts in the Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project,” Travis said. “Now she’s seeing them again as an adult.”
Travis hopes to have the final items, including the “perishables” such as textiles and sandals, moved by fall.
The move also has provided an opportunity to conduct a complete inventory of the massive collection because it is simply too big to do more than a random sample every year, Travis said.
“It had been moved twice because of threat of fire, but they weren’t able to do much then, obviously,” she said. “That’s one of the great things of moving the collection off the mesa, to reduce the threat of fire.”
What do a people who lived hundreds of years ago and one of the most coveted cars today have in common?
“I did some research and only found a few other museums that use geothermal energy for power,” Travis said. “They include us and the Ferrari Museum in Modena, Italy, which makes sense, because they have all those big garages to heat and cool.”
In March, the Visitor and Research Center received a Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council, the highest rating possible. Fourteen geothermal wells warm the building through coils in the floor during the winter and cool it with chill bars in the summer. Two arrays of photovoltaic solar panels and a micro-hydroturbine provide additional energy, and a number of other features maximize energy efficiency.
“For artifact storage, we have such stringent requirements for climate control,” Travis said. “This will provide both consistent power and lower energy bills.”
Visitors at the grand opening may not get to see all the energy-efficiency features, but they will get a rare chance to actually go into the repository and archives. Travis hopes people will take the opportunity to come out and see the newest addition to the landscape of Southwest Colorado.