Is this a museum … or a cave?

Judging by the comment cards that visitors leave at the front desk, the main drawbacks of the History Museum are that it’s too cold and too dark.

If you’ve shivered or squinted, you know what they mean. What’s up?

We talked with Associate Conservator Mina Thompson and Building Manager Emanuel Arnold to get the lowdown on our cave-like conditions.

Start with this: The temperature inside the museum is kept at a constant 72 degrees in the summer, 68 degrees in the winter— give or take a degree.

“Temperatures that are too hot will accelerate the degradation of organic material — plant fibers, like baskets, paper, wood, fabrics,” Thompson said. “Cooler is always better.”

Ideally, she said, artifacts like those in the current Home Lands: How Women Made the West exhibit (at left) would prefer 55 degrees, “but we have to keep a certain level of personal comfort.”

Kicking the temperature up even a notch can reduce the 35- to 40-percent humidity levels also needed to preserve the artifacts. “That’s much drier than other museums,” Thompson said. “Usually, they have 50-percent humidity. But that’s too hard on our mechanical system. And much of our material comes from New Mexico, so it’s not unusual for them to be in a drier climate.”

The wear and tear on the mechanical system was most apparent this summer when wildfire smoke kept Arnold busy.

“I monitored wind directions every day to make sure it didn’t get into the system,” he said. “All the units have smoke detectors and they can shut the whole building down. I had to change the filters several times when ash residue built up.”

Then came the monsoons, which, Arnold said, “kept us nice and juicy.” That’s not necessarily a good thing: Humidity can cause mold and mildew that also damages artifacts. Because of that, the system needed to take the humidity out of the museum, and the process ended up dropping the temperature a little more.

Even without fire and rain, the system works hard to maintain 3½ levels and 96,000 square feet. As it does so, it chews through dollars to pay for natural gas, electricity and water— another reason why Arnold must constantly monitor it for potential cost savings.

None of this applies to the Palace of the Governors, where historic preservation standards and exorbitant costs forbid installing a similar system. The temperature there, Arnold said, can range from 60 degrees in the morning to 90 degrees in the afternoon.

“But most of the stuff in the Palace is acclimated to the Southwest climate,” he said. “The artifacts in the newer building couldn’t handle that kind of temperature swing.”

As for lights, Thompson said, they pose a serious threat to the long-term health of color-sensitive artifacts – a significant concern when the museum hosted the precious documents featured in The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States (at left). Most light doesn’t just illuminate an object, it also emits heat and ultraviolet rays that can make colors fade faster as well as change the molecular structure of things as precious as a signature on a historic document. “Once that happens,” she said, “you can’t get it back.”

Thompson and museum Director Frances Levine agree that it really isn’t quite as dark as visitors assume. It just seems so because the rest of the museum is so bright.

“Usually, an exhibit that needs to be quite dark will have a couple of transition areas before you get into it so your eyes can adjust,” Thompson said. “It’s very bright here in the lobbies, so it’s hard to get a good transition.”

The best answer to that is patience. Your eyes will eventually adjust to the dimmer light. Your internal temperature control, however, may never adjust to the cool air.

Bring a sweater and keep reminding yourself: It’s for the artifacts’ sake.

Civil War-style Printing at the Palace Press

The Palace Press this week welcomed a guest printer and a rare replica of an even-rarer Civil War-era press.

Bruce Cammack, associate librarian for rare books at Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, brought a replica of an 1861 Adam’s Cottage Press to demonstrate what printing on the battlefront took.

Patented on March 19, 1861, the original cylinder press was manufactured and distributed by entrepreneur Joseph Watson and the Adams Press Company in New York. Advertisements for the press proclaimed that it could make Every Man His Own Printer!

“During the Civil War,” Cammack said, “they needed a way to print dispatches close to the front. These presses are heavy, but they’re mobile. They’d be in the back of a wagon, and you’d do orders and dispatches, incident reports, casualties, then move it. It was at the heart of the action.”

When the National Park Service discovered an original version of the press at Harpers Ferry, they hired Stephen Pratt of Pratt Wagon and Press Works in Cove Fort, Utah, to build five replicas. Today, two of them are at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, two are in private hands, and one belongs to Cammack, who acquired it through a grant by the CH Foundation in Lubbock to use for demonstration purposes.

How the original press ended up in Harpers Ferry is a story unto itself: It was used when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Court House, when it printed the officers’ release papers.

“After the war, these presses were used extensively throughout the American West,” Cammack said. “Newspaper editors would go out into communities with them. They were a nice size for newspapers, sturdy, with only a few moving parts. They’d print sales circulars, wedding invitations, everything you’d need from a frontier printer.”

Cammack likes printing with his replica for a few reasons.

“You don’t have to be so careful because it’s not 150 years old,” he said. “And the quality of the printing is the same as it was 150 years ago, because the metal hasn’t fatigued.”

Bruce and James Bourland, who keeps the working-press side of the Palace Press’ exhibits going, along with Director Tom Leech, showed visitors how simple it was to ink the type, and roll it under a piece of paper. The result had those little letter-press indentations that speak of a hand-operated press – along with a surprising amount of print clarity when you consider the conditions the original ones had to operate in.

After working with the press for a few days on a planned booklet, Cammack, Palace Press Director Tom Leech, and assistant James Bourland decided to cut their losses and go with something far more simpler. And far more memorable: Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace’s quote about New Mexico’s uniqueness in the world.


“All calculations based on experience elsewhere, fail in New Mexico.”

Here’s how the typeblock of the quote looked before they loaded it onto the press. You can use it to practice your upside-down-and-backwards reading.

By this weekend, the Palace Press expects to be pumping out copies of the Wallace quote, and Cammack, Leech and Bourland will be there to answer your questions. Drop by to pick up your free copy.

While you’re there, you can visit with another relic of the 1800s: the buckskin-clad folks participating in the Santa Fe Mountain Man Trade Fair, who’ve set up shop in the Palace Courtyard. Admission is free through the Blue Gate on Lincoln Avenue.

Sgt. Leroy Petry’s Homecoming…with Style

The New Mexico History Museum has a soft spot for military veterans. In our exhibits, we honor the men who served aboard the USS New Mexico, who endured the Bataan Death March, who answered the nation’s call time and again — as far back as the U.S. Revolution. Today, outside our windows and on the streets of the Santa Fe Plaza, the whole state showed its soft spot for one veteran and Santa Fe native in particular.

Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry recently became America’s newest Medal of Honor recipient. Over the last few days, he’s enjoyed a series of welcome-home events, but today was the cream of them all: A parade with bagpipers, a Color Guard, Vietnam veterans on Harley Davidsons, Cub Scouts waving flags bigger than themselves from the sidewalk, and a host of people bearing homemade banners and snapping keepsake photographs.

The weather cooperated with turquoise skies and a mild temperature. Mayor Dave Coss and Gov. Susana Martinez joined the procession, beaming and waving to the crowd. You can find plenty of background about the Army Ranger on the U.S. Army’s web page dedicated to him, along with the Santa Fe New Mexican’s collection of stories. In short, here’s what it took to make a hero:

While under fire in Afghanistan, Petry was struck and severely wounded when a Russian-made grenade was tossed toward him and his men. Despite his wounds, Petry reached for the grenade and prepared to toss it away when it instead blew up, taking his right hand with it.

From President Obama’s remarks at the Medal of Honor ceremony: “Every human impulse would tell someone to turn away. Every soldier is trained to seek cover. That’s what Sergeant Leroy Petry could have done. Instead, this wounded Ranger, this 28-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four, did something extraordinary. He lunged forward, toward the live grenade. He picked it up…and threw it back – just as it exploded.”

If you haven’t already seen it, Petry’s appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is well worth watching. (Warning: Your eyes will tear up, and you will laugh out loud when Stewart compares Petry to a Jedi warrior.)

In the meantime, check out our album of images from today’s parade, when New Mexico honored a favorite son.