Cowboys, Real and Imagined

New Mexico History Museum; Palace of the Governors
New Mexico Humanities Council
Santa Fe, NM

The New Mexico History Museum sought to draw visitors from across the state into an iconic regional narrative with their new exhibit.¬† Using the museum’s wide-range of collections, along with loans from individuals and institutions, Cowboys, Real and Imagined blended a chronological history of Southwestern cowboys with the rise of a manufactured popular culture version. The exhibit featured a 21-part public programming series to anchor the cowboy story in New Mexico, a place that not only helped give birth to the real thing, but has held onto it longer than many other states.

The graphic and 3D exhibit starts with the cowboy’s Spanish colonial origins and covers the evolution through the 19th-century open range, the outlaw era, the 20th century rise of a pop-culture cowboy, and current challenges. Throughout the exhibit, visitors can hear ambient soundscapes and listen to historic songs and poetry on audio stations. Documentary films are played on touch screens and projected within the exhibit space, and touchable educational pieces invite a tactile learning experience.

The designers of the exhibit created an immersive exhibition environment allowing visitors to:

  • Experience a cowboy chuck wagon and campsite
  • Play checkers in a saloon environment on reproductions of gaming tables
  • Feel the open range through sounds of cattle, birds, streams, and wind.

Artifacts, audio-visual components, and graphics created a seamless flow through time and place. Curatorial selections represented historic ranches, actual cowboys, and recognizable New Mexican families.

With this exhibit, the New Mexico History Museum sought to encourage community engagement within their walls. The public programming portion served to strengthen statewide connections and underscored the unique regional heritage and ongoing presence of New Mexico cowboys. The museum worked with ranchers across the state to ensure their voices were included in the exhibit as well. Through working with other institutions and individuals, the museum reached outside of its artifact holdings and built bonds beyond their geographic community that will last past the exhibit’s run.