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Anthropology Is Alive at the Maxwell Museum

By Jim Caton

An attractive, modern Pueblo-style building on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque houses the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. If museums are to be judged on their success at making the technical and specialized both accessible and interesting to the public, then the Maxwell has a great deal to be proud of. A teaching museum since its conception, the Maxwell excels at bringing the past and the present, the near and the far, into genuine conversation with each other and with the public. At the Maxwell, the emphasis is on the relevance of anthropology to our own lives.

"Anthropology is important in a contemporary context because it avails us an opportunity to know human cultures in all their variability and similarities," says Devorah Romanek, Curator of Exhibitions. "Particularly in a world that is globally connected and diverse, it is important to take an interest in and have a respect for other cultures."

For most of its 83 years, the Maxwell Museum operated as a part of the UNM Anthropology department, and it is still under the auspices of the university. Throughout that history, the Maxwell has energetically collected and researched tools, weapons, and cooking utensils; wood, fiber, and bone; shards, shafts, and swaths - all in the quest of knowing the peoples of the American Southwest, Mexico, and from around the world. Twice, in fact, the Maxwell's collections have outgrown the buildings housing them. The heart of the museum's mission statement identifies its broad mandate: " increase knowledge and understanding of the human cultural experience across space and time. The museum serves this mission by collecting, maintaining, researching, and interpreting anthropological materials." While the Maxwell's artifact collections are representative of a global curiosity, its holdings and exhibits are firmly focused on the Southwest and northern Mexico, with deep and ongoing studies of places like the Chaco Canyon and peoples such as the Anasazi and Pueblo.

One recent exhibit at the Maxwell might be seen to define the museum itself and its purpose. El Agua es Vida: Acequias in Northern New Mexico, according to Public Programs Manager Mary Beth Hermans, "presented a history of acequia irrigation in five communities of northern New Mexico and included photographs, tools, and a 3-D topographical map of the areas studied. We worked with anthropologists, water researchers and historians to create a broad view of acequia culture. The exhibit opening day included acequia poetry, music, heirloom seed presentations and ditch-bank refreshments. Over two-hundred people attended the event and many visitors enjoyed the exhibition throughout the year." Such an exhibit sounds both interesting and fun. But let's look at how the Maxwell Museum takes "interesting" to another level.

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Brought to Spain by Arab conquerors and then to the Americas by the Spanish, acequia (or ditch) irrigation characterizes the landscape of northern New Mexico and other southwest U.S. and northern Mexican regions. The technology - and the traditional system of water rights associated with it - have flowed through centuries of history to bring their own particular vitality to the twentieth-first-century American Southwest. Recent studies have found and confirmed that acequia irrigation carries with it such benefits for agroecosystems as the promotion of soil conservation and soil formation, provision of wildlife habitats and movement corridors, protection of water quality and fish habitat, conservation of biodiversity, and "a strong land and water ethic and sense of place." As the Maxwell exhibit demonstrated, and in contrast to the western states' more common "prior appropriation" regime of water rights (essentially a "finders-keepers" system), acequia irrigation is overseen by communities within the watershed and according to a "one farmer, one vote" political arrangement. For this reason, acequia is considered by many to be the democracy of water management, and as the Maxwell's website stresses, "The water crisis of the 21st century is global. Many of the questions that concern acequia researchers have also been pursued by researchers working on similar systems in other parts of the world."

What better example is there of exploring the diversity of human life and societies "across space and time" than such an exhibit? El Agua es Vida not only documents a cultural technology but considers it as an established alternative to the way we currently do things and even as a possible solution to a current crisis. It is the proper work of a university to explore such questions, but it is a remarkable museum that presents this work for serious public consideration. The Maxwell regularly hosts lectures and workshops - and even runs summer camps for kids, including such activities as archeology digs, instrument-making and geocaching. The museum is open to the public, for free, Tuesdays through Saturday from 10am to 4pm at 1 University Blvd .

If knowledge can be compared to water as a precious resource, the Maxwell Museum works like an acequia system, putting that knowledge democratically in the hands of all those who depend upon it.

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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