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NMSU history professor to share experience at NM History Museum with students

Longtime New Mexico historian and expert on the Atomic West Jon Hunner is a modern-day time traveler, sharing the past to help college students build their futures. For the better part of the past year he took on another duty in service to the state, as interim director of the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors Historic Landmark in Santa Fe.

Man talking to a group of students
While serving as interim director of the New Mexico History Museum in 2014, Jon Hunner guided students from the Dona Ana Community College Architectural Summer School on a tour of the Palace of the Governors and its courtyard on their field trip to northern New Mexico. (Courtesy Photo)

“There was something new every day,” said Hunner, who teaches public history in New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Part of it was reinventing myself at age 62. Even though I’ve been teaching New Mexico history for 20 years and thought I knew a lot about it, I learned a lot I didn’t know about New Mexico history.”

The NMSU professor spent eight months assisting the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs as the organization went through the process of hiring a permanent director. His considerable experience led the organization to invite Hunner to keep the museum running smoothly during the search.

“I know how museums work,” Hunner said. “Before I became a historian I worked in a museum.”
Hunner oversaw five units, which include: the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously inhabited public building in the country; the New Mexico History Museum, opened in 2009 as a 96,000-square-foot addition to the Palace of the Governors, which has seen more than 500,000 visitors since it opened; the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, a traditional archive for the state; the Palace of the Governors Photo Archive; and the Native American Vendors Program, which allows artists to sell arts and crafts in front of the Palace of the Governors.

“It’s gratifying to see Jon Hunner’s knowledge and expertise recognized on the state level as interim director of the New Mexico History Museum,” said Christa Slaton, dean of NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “His contributions as an historian are embedded in the DNA of New Mexico. Through his scholarship, his teaching and outreach, he has been an important voice in preserving the history of this state.”

Now that Hunner is back at NMSU, he’s planning courses he will teach based on his experiences at the museum.

“There are two things I’ve been working on sharing,” said Hunner. “One is how to put together an exhibit, from beginning research to envisioning what goes up on the walls, to collecting artifacts and fabricating to the opening. The other thing I’m going to bring back to my students is how to do heritage organization administration. Part of it’s funding, part of it’s fundraising and dealing with budgets and personnel.”

During his time at the museum, Hunner was involved with three exhibits: one called “Painting the Divine: Images of the Virgin Mary in the New World,” some dating back to 18th century through contemporary images; another was the opening of the Gustave Baumann holiday card exhibit; and the final was the Fred Harvey Company exhibit.

“There is an incredible mix of a lot of different peoples’ history here in New Mexico and I think the museum does a good job of representing all that diversity.”

While at the museum, Hunner kept spreading his passion that public history belongs to everyone. He described meeting a family from the Navajo Nation. “Their youngest boy looked up at me and asked ‘Is this your museum?’ and I looked at him and said ‘No it’s yours’ and his eyes got really big and he was looking all around.”

Hunner’s most cherished memory is of standing in the Palace of the Governors just feeling the history of the place. He believes museums are not just for historians or tourists, but for future generations who will look back and try to understand what’s gone on in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“We study the past to prepare for living in the future,” Hunner said. “We study the past for self-identification. We also preserve the past for future generations. It is who we were. It is who we are. It is who we’re going to become.”