A recent week of museum-hopping in Albuquerque left me greatly impressed with how original and refreshing a lineup of museums this quirky town has for a metro area its size. Time and again, what I thought at first might be just one more museum served up locally-tuned real-life content which lent it special pizazz.
Albuquerque’s Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, the Explora! family activity center, Petroglyph National Monument and Park, and super-cool National Hispanic Cultural Center all struck me as offering this extra dimension. A special attraction for the many Hispanic visitors I encountered was that most museums there feature Spanish-speaking personnel and bilingual labeling.
The prestigious International Balloon Museum chronicles ups and downs of hot-air and lighter-than-air flight from the Montgolfier brothers’ launching of their unmanned pioneer hot-air balloon in 1783 to the late Steve Fosset’s world-girdling solo balloon flights in 2002 and years right after. While organizationally separate from Albuquerque’s world-famous annual International Balloon Fiesta held every October, it serves as an inevitable backdrop for that event. Some 650 pilots representing 37 states and 17 foreign countries brightened Albuquerque’s sky with almost as many balloons for this year’s 38th balloon fiesta, delighting over half a million spectators.
Albuquerque-based Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo, who founded the museum, had piloted their Double-Eagle II balloon in 1978 on the first successful manned trans-Atlantic balloon flight, from Maine to France. Among the countless exhibits and historical relics they display is an outfitted replica of their own history-making gondola, whose original is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The only difference between them– imperceptible, but important for kids of all ages –is that you can actually climb into Albuquerque’s gondola and try it on for size!
After exiting Anderson-Abruzzo Museum’s fascinating first-hand roundup of hot-air ballooning’s three centuries of multi-colored history, chances are you won’t be able to resist springing for an hour or so’s flight over Albuquerque with one of the local balloon ride companies. Just like us. Soon we were peering down from a thousand feet at the legendary Rio Grande snaking through the city’s patchwork of new and ancient quarters that reflect the gradual evolution since its founding in 1706.
Back on the ground, an ideal place for contemplating Albuquerque’s intriguing ethnic past– and New Mexico’s –is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center at the edge of downtown. It gives you an authentic look at all 19 Indian pueblos, or villages, and three reservations which still call New Mexico home– each with its own rich and remarkably distinct customs, costumes and crafts.
The center devotes separate large, annotated displays profiling history and particularities of every tribe, from Acoma to Zuni. Exhibits also describe the pueblos’ government, trade, religion and artwork from pottery to paintings. The Pueblo Harvest Café serves daily “native fusion” fare that’s popular with both visitors and local residents. And on weekends colorfully clad tribal members dance at the center to traditional drumbeats and chants.
Explora! impresses one as much more than a museum. It is a highly original “transactive” learning center, where children, adults and seniors alike can have fun together fiddling with concepts involving air (hot and otherwise), water, sound, light, numbers and other back-to-basics. Last year it welcomed more than 200,000 explorers.
“A museum is a passive place where you stand and look at things,” guide Ellen Welker insisted. “Here you touch all the exhibits, then leave, and others touch the same exhibits, so if you return to one of them it’s a new experience. We create opportunities for inspirational discovery in science, technology and art for people of all ages.”
Everyone loves Explora!’s delightfully slow-moving, room-size elevator, where a whole family going between floors may relax on an upholstered sofa and armchairs rehashing what they saw, or plan to see next, above or below..
A few miles out of town, Petroglyph National Monument and Park overlook Boca Negra Canyon and the Rio Grande valley from a 17-mile-long volcanic escarpment known as West Mesa. National Park Service Rangers cooperatively manage this mostly outdoor site with the City of Albuquerque. Their joint mission is to conserve the mesa’s unique archeological finds and conduct year-round public education programs.
More than 20,000-plus exemplars of volcanic “rock art” attributable to past generations of nameless craftsmen have been discovered on the mesa. Adventure tourism aficionados can clamber enthusiastically up, down and around this rocky gallery whose images recall centuries of Native American life. Some appear clearly as bird, animal or human figures, while others stump the experts even today.
Returning to the valley floor, many visitors want to head for the Historic Old Town where Albuquerque was born, in quest of modern replicas of the carved or embossed designs scattered over these rock-strewn slopes.
At a side entry into Albuquerque Museum of Art and History from its sculpture garden, a few blocks from Old Town, is a life-size statue embodying one native image quite popular with Albuquerque visitors. It portrays a crouching, dancing and often flute-playing sprite nicknamed Kokopelli. His eclectic figure appears in countless versions on Pueblo pottery, carved figurines, fabrics and jewelry.
The best place to acquire a Kokopelli souvenir of your choosing is from Old Town’s hundred or more traditional arts and crafts galleries and shops. Sizable profiles of this mythical fellow cut from sheet metal to stake in outdoor gardens are said to promote fruitful harvests, for he is considered a fertility symbol. At the small end of the scale are small Kokopelli charms cast in ceramic or carved from animal bones and strung in necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Tiny animal fetishes called “Kachinas” are often sought by amateur beaders to incorporate in homemade bling.
Albuquerque’s federal government-supported National Hispanic Cultural Center is situated downtown not far from Old Town. Danny Lopez, its dynamic interim director, defined it as “a many-sided conglomeration” of artistic presentations in all genres and categories. His museum displays stunning samples from a permanent collection of 2,000 pieces covering a 400-year span of traditional and contemporary Hispanic-related artworks. It also offers regular classical and popular concerts and theatrical performances with regional flavor, as well as educational exhibits and programs inspired by the Spanish, Mexican and Native American cultures that infuse our 47th state’s origin and lifestyle.
A bold undertaking soon to reach fruition is construction on the center’s grounds of what is called Fresco Tower (Torreon Fresco). As Lopez put it, Mexican artist Frederico Vigil has been “held captive inside” for over a year, executing a gigantic fresco painting of more than 4,000 square feet to cover its ceiling and most of the 45-foot-high interior walls.Its laborious birthing involves applying paint to wet plaster to create a bond meant to last hundreds of years. The massive work depicts development of the Hispanic heritage from prehistory to present, picturing many of its milestone events and movers and shakers of the region’s evolution.
Asked when his task will be completed and the tower’s now officially sealed doors opened to Cultural Center patrons, the artist said with a hearty laugh, “By the end of this year,” and added, “that’s when my contract will expire.”
Where to Stay
Some doubles at newly renovated Sheraton Albuquerque Uptown Hotel, about 10 minutes by car from Old Town, run less than $100 a night. Tel: (800) 747-0181.
What to See
Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, www.balloonmuseum.com
Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, www.albuquerquemuseum.com
National Hispanic Cultural Center, www.nhccnm.org
Petroglyph National Monument and Park, www.nps.gov/petr/ (Entry free, with parking fee of $1 weekdays and $2 weekends)
Old Town Plaza www.albuquerqueoldtown.com (Albuquerque’s original town square, with over 150 shops and galleries)
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, www.balloonfiesta.com
Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co., www.rainbowryders.com (official balloon ride company for Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta)
New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, www.NMnaturalhistory.org Admission free
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, www.indianpueblo.org
Where to Eat
These restaurants specialize in traditional Hispanic and/or Native American cuisine, including signature regional dishes like red chili Posole Pork Soup, Beef Stew with green chili, and Blue Corn tortillas:
Old Town’s Church Street Café, 2111 Church St, (505) 247-8522,
El Pinto restaurant, 10500 – 4th St NW, (505) 898-1771;
Pueblo Harvest Café at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center;
La Fonda del Bosque at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.