By Bill Diven
History turned another page at the Bernalillo Community Museum this month as a new director moved into the town’s youngest cultural institution.
Ashley Flores isn’t a newcomer to the museum, however. She interned as an exhibit designer under founding director Emily Stovel while working on her Master’s degree in history and museum management.
She also served as a consultant for the museum’s budding tourism program working with town residents and business people and served as a judge during the rainy Dec. 3 nighttime Christmas parade.
“During my research and internship, I really got a sense of the history and culture,” Flores said. “In between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Bernalillo has not just survived culturally but maintained a small-town vitality. It’s special.”
And while she’s still getting to know Bernalillo and its people, her family roots link to the 1692 Atrisco land grant across the Rio Grande from Albuquerque.
Flores began work on Jan. 3 moving into what in decades before was a church with a later modular building attached to the front. The museum at 118 Calle Malinche around the corner from Town Hall became the Martha Liebert Community Library until 2006, when the library moved next door to the Depression-era, two-story adobe structure that had been Bernalillo’s all-grades school.
When Flores arrived, more than two months had passed since Stovel, the museum’s sole staff person, had departed. She found the museum somewhat in disarray with furniture Stovel ordered mostly stacked in the front exhibit space.
Since then she has welcomed three Vista America interns from the same University of New Mexico program that placed her there. Flores is preparing to restart programs, apply for grants, meet with the museum advisory board and ready a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Stovel’s last exhibit on the Matachines, the ceremonial dancers deeply rooted in Bernalillo culture, remains in place although it may receive more prominent display and additional context, Flores said. The exhibit includes traditional headdresses worn by the dancers and those made by local students, part of a museum outreach to elementary schools that she intends to expand.
Meanwhile two groups formed by weaving instructor Diane Wilhoite are meeting at the library. Wilhoite, a licensed professional counselor who has taught weaving for more than 30 years in Pueblo communities and elsewhere, said her goal was to help relieve the stress of being isolated during the pandemic.
“The problem was, we didn’t have a place to meet,” Wilhoite said. “I already knew Emily from the Weavers Guild, so I called her. I am pleased the Town of Bernalillo is really encouraging this type of thing to go on.”
One group is an informal social gathering of Pueblo women meeting for one year on Thursdays to create traditional woven belts worn by men and women as part of their cultures. A separate group of spinners meets Saturdays from 10am to noon, bringing their own spinning wheels and alpaca, cashmere and other fleeces to turn into yarn.
The spinners couldn’t meet with Stovel gone and the library closed on Saturdays but resumed meeting on Jan. 14.
Stovel began building the museum from scratch in July 2019, starting with a computer on a donated desk in a corner of the otherwise empty building. She set her focus on involving as many people as possible.
“A lot of museum work is understanding the needs of the community and how a museum can serve that in collaboration with other organizations,” she said at the time.
An anthropologist by training, Stovel had been the site manager of the Casa San Ysidro Museum in Corrales and Sandoval County’s tourism and event coordinator at the historic El Zócalo in Bernalillo before launching the museum.
While some programs such as collecting oral histories were underway, public health restrictions from the COVID pandemic scuttled the planned 2020 museum opening.
Working with other museums, cultural agencies and on her own, Stovel attracted grant funding for animated videos featuring the voices of older residents recalling their childhoods. Her plan to celebrate the 2020 centennial of women gaining the right to vote led to collaborating with other area museums to display outdoors banner portraits of significant women in the movement.
Typical of the museum’s goals, both the videos and posters came with educational materials and activities. Stovel resigned unexpectedly to assist with family responsibilities in Canada.
“I was as heartbroken as she was heartbroken, but family calls,” Mayor Jack Torres said. “She got us off the ground in a really positive way.”
Flores inherited two exhibits Stovel had been planning built around low riders and railroad history. She is just now studying the progress of both for a possible combined opening later this year as she guides the museum forward.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “It’s what all my schooling and passions have led to. To see the work Emily put into the museum inspires me to do my best to set an agenda that really reflects the community.”