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Weekly Alibi House of History

By Blake D. Pastino

MAY 26, 1998: 

The Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture

Of all the strange attractions that New Mexico has to offer the curious tourist, one of the strangest must be the phenomenon known as the "home museum." All over the state, in tiny country towns like Ancho, San Patricio and Ft. Sumner, folks have opened up their homes to the traveling public, in hopes of grabbing a quick tourist dollar while showing off what amounts to their lifetimes' worth of old junk. The age of the stuff is usually what's important in these places, rather than how rare or interesting it is, and because of that, most home museums feature the same kinds of weird, old gimcracks: glass insulators from old-fashioned power lines, century-old tin cans found in abandoned patches of desert, even the occasional saddle or stirrup or gun that is said to belong to Billy the Kid. But if it's novelty as well as age that makes the home museum worthwhile, then the prize must go to the Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture.

Tucked away on a dirt road near Cedar Crest, housed in the office/lobby of an RV park, the Museum of Archaeology is probably the most professional--and least homey--of New Mexico's home museums. In small, dark, crowded rooms, the Museum displays hundreds of artifacts, many of which go back not just to the days of the Wild West but to before there was a West at all. And the things on display really outstrip the rusted cans and animal traps that you see in other roadside museums: Here you can expect to find stuff like 3,000-year-old straw mats from the Pecos Valley, pieces of pre-Columbian pottery from the ancient Caddo culture and human remains that date back 2,000 years.

It is all the work of Bradley Bowman, a 48-year-old archaeologist who in 1996 gathered all of the holdings he accumulated over the years into a cramped, informative and curiously thorough series of exhibits on American history. Many of the pieces he has on display--like old arrowheads, stone tools and physical remains--were discovered by Bowman himself. Others--like ancient textiles and bits of prehistoric pottery--were given to him as gifts. And all of it is presented with a mind-bending devotion to detail. Display after display of time-worn stuff is mounted with signs, maps and color-coded keys that give you more raw data than you can possibly ingest one eyeful at a time, from exhibits on the origin of archaeology to a run-down of all the major civilizations that have inhabited the Western world. If you're gonna show the tourists what you know, Bowman believes, you might as well go all the way.

"The reason we dig holes in the first place is to spread the knowledge, right?" Bowman says of archaeology. "But the knowledge is not being spread in a way that the average guy can relate to. That's what the museum is about--carrying that information out to the average guy." In this respect, the crowning achievement of the Museum must be the "Time-Line Room," an array of artifacts that stretches back to the very beginning of human settlement in America--represented by an authentic mammoth tusk--and proceeding steadily to the closing of the frontier--marked by a well-preserved American flag from 1881. Scraps of straw mats, tiny stone cherts and hand-made dioramas add color along the way. And while Bowman's displays are remarkably informative (the exhibit on how to identify and classify arrowheads takes about 30 minutes to read), there are still some ramshackle exhibits--like cases crammed with unlabeled Indian-looking stuff--that give off the more informal feel of a down-home home museum.

But the Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture is not entirely a home museum in the usual, New Mexican sense. Bowman has filled all of the living space with Museum stuff, so now he lives elsewhere in the park. In the rear he has built a full-scale pit house and a mock archaeological dig, where local schoolkids putter around on field trips. There's even a museum store that sells books, videos and post cards related to the themes of ancient America. But through it all, this RV attraction has at least one thing in common with those other folksy, roadside museums: It's a labor of love. "The responsibility is kind of intense, having to take care of all these things that can't be replaced," Bowman says. "But I want it to go on forever."

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