Former County Commissioner in third year as Director of NM History Museum
By Mike Cook
“The longer I’ve been here, the more honored I am by the position I’m in,” said former Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett, who became acting director of the New Mexico Museum of History ( NMHM) in Santa Fe in May 2019 and a permanent director for more than two years.
After eight years on the county commission (2011-18), Garrett was “trying to figure out what I was going to do next,” he said, when he received an offer to become acting director of NMHM. Garrett was named executive director weeks before COVID-19 hit, closing the museum and public buildings across the country.
The shutdown “gave us an opportunity as a team to become a lot more comfortable doing things remotely,” Garrett said. The museum continues to encourage visitors to come to the museum and also creates “opportunities for people to see some of this stuff online,” he said.
A good example is “Fred Harvey Weekend,” which the NMHM had been hosting for a decade to celebrate the Harvey House restaurants and hotels that began popping up along the Santa Fe Railroad in 1876, “connecting New Mexico and the ‘West to other parts of the country,’ Garrett said.
Instead of canceling the event in 2020 due to the pandemic, Garrett and his team changed the format to a Zoom talk series and an “online cooking show (with) top chefs in Santa Fe” sharing their recipes with an audience of a national and international audience who “cooked with us”, he said.
Last year’s event was a hybrid, featuring an in-person dinner in Santa Fe and additional online content. The 2022 event will take place November 11-15 in Santa Fe, Lamy, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the “Setting the Standard: The Fred Harvey Company and His Legacy” exhibit will continue at NMHM until the end. of 2024.
“It’s an important indication of where we’re headed as a museum,” Garrett said. “A big part of that is trying to figure out how we can be more relevant and more connected to people in New Mexico who are interested in New Mexico.”
The NMHM also has important material for researchers, writers and students, Garrett said, and is “working very hard” to have the material digitized and available online. The museum also has an “aggressive educational program” to connect it with teachers and students across the state.
Garrett is also busy with a major project to preserve the 400-year-old Governors Palace. Work began in 2018 and will continue for about two more years, he said.
Current exhibits at NMHM include “Curative Powers: Hot Springs of New Mexico,” which ends September 4;
“The Palace Seen and Unseen: A Convergence of History and Archaeology, which continues until June 2026; “WORDS on the Edge” Poetry Exhibit ending August 31; “The Don Pedro Villasur Massacre”, “The First World War” and “Recounting New Mexico: Stories of Then and Now”, which will continue until 2030.
Garrett is also excited about an exhibit that opens Aug. 7 and runs for a year at NMHM: “Honoring Tradition and Innovation: 100-Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market 1922-2022.” The exhibit will include 250 objects associated with the last century of the market, which each year features the largest juried exhibition of Native American art in the world.
The exhibit demonstrates “the evolution of federal Indian policy,” Garrett said, showing the shift from “paternalism to one where Native Americans have much more control over how their work is presented and who judges them and directs the sales of their items”.
As a museum director, “I’m constantly discovering new things and seeing new things,” Garrett said.
During a TV interview he did in a room in the Palace of Governors, for example, Garrett said the camera lights “caught a shadow in one corner,” showing a faint pictograph etched into the wall there. over a hundred years ago as part of an exhibition of finds and artists’ renderings from an archaeological dig north of Santa Fe.
Garrett found similar carvings in other corners of the room, but “I find no reference to any of them in our historical documentation. No one in the museum had seen them before.
Garrett, who retired from the US Forest Service in 2009 before running for the county commission, said he wanted to accomplish more at NMHM “before retiring again.” He and his wife, Cynthia, sold their home in Las Cruces to move to Santa Fe, but “Las Cruces and Doña Ana County are in my blood,” Garrett said. ” It’s my house. It’s still my kind of spiritual anchor.
In fact, he said, being from Las Cruces is one of the reasons he was named executive director of NMHM.
“My selection and presence here is an affirmation of being able to reach every corner of the state,” he said. “As we continue to work on the exhibits, as we flesh out what we are going to do with new exhibits in the palace, I think people can expect to see themselves more in this museum and that is part of our goal. .”