The new archaeological exhibit at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, scheduled to open this spring, was to be a thing of beauty. Housed in a spiffed-up visitor’s center, featuring hundreds of artifacts that likely hadn’t been on display in generations, it seemed a once-in-a- lifetime chance to see what the researchers of the late 1800s found when they pried open the long-sealed chambers of what is now the park’s main attraction, Pueblo Bonito.
Back then, archaeological expeditions carted off thousands of items—beads, pots, yucca fibers, skeletons from macaws that prove Chaco’s importance as a center of trade—and gave them to the collections of important East Coast museums like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.
The planned exhibit would have meant that generations of Chacoan descendants who live in the Pueblos surrounding the park and on the Navajo Nation would have been able to see the work their ancestors wrought for the first time.
When Dabney Ford, an archaeologist and former head of cultural resources at Chaco, retired last year, she says the unprecedented exhibit “was going great guns.”
Now it seems shot to hell.
Two weeks ago, curator Wendy Bustard sent one of the most embarrassing emails of her professional career. It went to curators and other officials at two Smithsonian museums—the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History—as well as the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibit wouldn’t be opening. At all. Years of work identifying and preparing artifacts, negotiating the terms of their loan and building custom mounts for them … gone.
The word came from higher-ups that plans for the exhibit must halt—despite the Park Service having already sunk nearly $2 million to design and build mounts and cases, to rehab the visitor center display hall and to ship artifacts stored in New Mexico to Arizona for stabilization. Bustard, who manages the Park Service’s Chaco research collection that’s housed in the basement of a building on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, figures that ramping the project back up once it’s scrapped would take five years.
" I would say at this time there is never going to be an exhibit there."
-Dabney Ford, former chief of cultural resources at Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Ford thinks her old colleague’s assessment is too generous. “I think, given what I saw probably in the last five or six years of my being there—and I was there for just over 30 years,” she says, “I would say at this time there is never going to be an exhibit there.”
How did things go so wrong?
In 2010, the park tore down the old visitor center and with it, the 1980s-era interpretive display. As then-superintendent Barbara West planned the rebuild, she OK’d plans for the exhibit. While the visitor center has since reopened, the heating and cooling system can’t control the climate.
While park management says the new building is comfortable, Bustard says the exhibit hall within it is not. A few days before Christmas, she measured the temperature in the exhibit hall at 39 degrees. Too cold for people and too cold for precious objects.
“The temperature and relative humidities were all over the place,” she says. In one 24-hour period last summer, the relative humidity was as low 14 percent and as high as 58 percent. For museum artifacts that date back hundreds of years—things like bone, wood and textiles—that kind of swing in the room’s moisture content can be lethal. Organic material swells and contracts and eventually splits, cracks or otherwise falls apart. The park service’s own standards don’t allow that. And forget about getting the Smithsonian to loan you something with those numbers.
And so, when he arrived late last year to become superintendent of Chaco and Aztec Ruins to the north, Michael Quijano-West assessed the HVAC data and looked at the park’s aging infrastructure, unreliable power supply and remote location. Then he pulled the plug.
“This kind of an exhibit should have never been created to begin with,” he says. “It’s unrealistic to expect us to do a New York City-style exhibit here.”
“We can’t just fix this with a generator,” he says. “We need engineers to come out here, they need to give me estimates and then we need to get funding.”
Barbara West, his predecessor, disagrees.
“If you wait for infrastructure to get fixed, you’re never going to do anything,” she says. “Absolutely there are challenges. It’s remote. But it’s really important. This is a [United Nations] World Heritage Site. If you don’t do anything for the visitors, I guarantee you the park will be closed in 10 years.”
Quijano-West says his focus is on providing a sustainable experience for the people who make the trek to Chaco. The new display will center on the culture of Chacoan descendants, not on the museum pieces from the past.
Ford says the decision will undoubtedly hurt visitors who could have better understood the wonder of Chaco, “and not just see the empty buildings, but see the things that made those buildings spectacular.”
For well-funded museums back east, scrapping a project that’s already cost such a colossal amount of time and money is almost unthinkable.
David Hurst Thomas, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, told SFR in an email that news of the exhibit’s delay or possible demise was “a total surprise” to him and his staff. “We have invested considerable time, effort, and enthusiasm to assist in this important exhibition. We are all extremely confused and disappointed.”
Barbara West’s assessment is blunt: “We’re giving up on Chaco and its visitors.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained a quote from Bustard claiming Chaco artifacts from Pueblo Bonito had not been on display ever before in New Mexico. Some of the them were here in the 1980s.