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Problems Plague World-Class Museum At Chaco Culture National Historical Park


An impressive exhibit of Chaco Culture artifacts, many from Pueblo Bonito, including the Pueblo Bonito Frog, was to go on display at Chaco Culture National Historical this spring but has been put off indefinitely/NPS

Night timelapse over Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture NHP/NPS

Pueblo Bonito at night/NPS

Chaco Archaeology

Chaco Canyon National Monument is important primarily because it contains outstanding archeological remains of the Anasazi (Basketmaker-Pueblo) culture. Within the monument there are over 400 recorded archeological sites ranging from simple one-room pithouse dwellings to complex pueblos containing several hundred rooms. In addition to the thousands of living quarters and storage rooms, these archeological sites include ceremonial structures known as kivas and great kivas, pictograph sites, prehistoric stairways carved in the cliffs, and several archeologically important trash mounds. They also include complex water conservation and distribution systems which have only recently come to light. From these sites has come a wealth of stone, bone, clay, and fiber artifacts which, in combination with the physical remains, have been helpful to the archeologist in deciphering the story of man's existence here.--NPS

Kin Kletso ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Kin Kletso pueblo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Sound And Light At Chaco Culture National Historical Park

By Frederick H. Swanson

An oddly familiar music greeted me as we pulled up to our reserved site in Gallo Campground, located in a side wing of Chaco Canyon’s buff-colored sandstone cliffs. That sounds like a white-crowned sparrow, I thought as I carried our tent to the 12-foot-square sandbox that would be our sleeping spot for the next four nights.

I got out binoculars and, sure enough, there were the telltale white-and-black head stripes that identified it as my favorite mountain songster. But here in the desert? In mid-October? Already this national historical park in New Mexico, which my wife and I and a friend from Albuquerque were visiting for the first time, was surprising me.

More surprises awaited us the next morning as we toured Pueblo Bonito with a knowledgeable volunteer guide. This 600-room complex of dwellings, kivas and ceremonial spaces was as stunning as we had anticipated. But the intricate details in the stonework, the numerous kivas, the windows artfully placed on diagonals to intercept the sun at the winter solstice—these I had not anticipated.

I also didn’t expect to see elk tracks. Not at the pueblo, of course, but up on the mesa to the south, where later that day I followed a deserted trail leading to the Tsin Kletsin pueblo site. Definitely not cow, I thought, but elk out here in the high desert, with nary a tree in sight? It was all a bit disorienting.

Back at the visitor center, I learned that Rocky Mountain elk had moved into the park in 1999 and now numbered about 60 animals. Attracted by the ungrazed grass growing on the high mesas, they managed to thrive in this arid locale. Back in 1907, Teddy Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act in order to protect Chaco’s outstanding Puebloan buildings, not because he wanted a new game preserve. Still, he would have approved of the elks’ reappearance after an absence of some centuries.

The third realization dawned more slowly, as we toured Chaco by vehicle and on foot over the next few days. It’s one that comes to many visitors once they leave the parking lots and scenic overlooks and venture out on the trails. Wow, this place is quiet. Lonely, even. Only the wind in the grama grass, punctuated by the occasional croak of a raven, accompanied us as we hiked to Chaco’s various trail-accessible pueblo sites.

Revelation number four came as no surprise to me, but I’m sure it must come as a shock to numerous park visitors. It’s really dark here at night. Ensconced back at camp at sundown, we fixed dinner, played a board game on the picnic table, and waited for our fellow campers to turn off car headlights and camp lanterns. There it was, right overhead, stretching past Cygnus’s outstretched wings and reaching down past Sagittarius on the southern rim: the via galactia, the Milky Way. Could it really be true that eighty percent of Americans cannot see this wonder from where they live?

That evening we eschewed a campfire as we sat in our chairs and gazed upward, our voices hushed. I got out my binoculars again and had no difficulty bringing in the Lagoon Nebula, the great star cluster in Hercules, and other familiar sights. Chaco’s undimmed night skies have earned it designation as an International Dark Sky Park, joining Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Grand Canyon and ten other National Park units within the Four Corners states.

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Windows into the past/Lee Dalton

Great kiva at Chetro Ketl/NPS

Doorway at Penasco Blanco/NPS

Tower kiva at Kin Ya'a/NPS

Mechanical Issues Could Keep "Pueblo Bonito Frog" From Future Exhibit

David Hurst Thomas had planned to personally carry the "Pueblo Bonito Frog" from its safe storage at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in a remote and dusty corner of New Mexico as the hallmark of a world-class exhibit of Chaco Culture artifacts. But as problems continue to plague the park's new museum, the exhibit has been put off indefinitely and the frog is remaining in hibernation.

"Our position is we want to try to help out. We’ve got a great collection from there," Dr. Thomas, the museum's curator of North American Archaeology, said last week during a phone call from New York. "The Pueblo Bonito Frog is the famous artifact in all this. And that was in the initial Park Service request, and we declined. We didn’t think it could travel, and we were concerned about its high value.

"Wendy (Bustard, curator of the Park Service's Chaco collection held at the Universtiy of New Mexico) and the other Park Service curator types had consulted with the tribes, and I was personally contacted by governors of more than a couple pueblos making the case about continuity and how it was important to have that particular artifact in the show. … So, we reversed and agreed that I would personally hand carry out the frog, and it could be there on display for six months, and then we would provide a replica and it could stay on after that. That was a major concession on our part.”

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City was willing to loan the Pueblo Bonito Frog, unearthed from Pueblo Bonito in the 1890s, to Chaco Culture National Historical Park for a museum display/Catalog #H/10426, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History

The Pueblo Bonito Frog, considered to be about 1,000 years old, is a totem carved from black "jet," a type of lignite, by Ancestral Puebloan artisans and was thought to serve as a water symbol. Inlaid with brilliant turquoise eyes and collar, the artifact was unearthed in 1897 from Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Some months later the frog appeared at a trading post to the north of Chaco Canyon, and a representative for the American Museum of Natural History was able to acquire it for $50.

Located at the end of a 20-mile washboard road, the national historical park with its focal point of the 600-room Pueblo Bonito is decidedly out of the way. What the park preserves is a remarkable setting that flourished as an Ancestral Puebloan trade, religious, and political center between 850 AD and 1250 AD.

The highly organized large-scale structures, featuring multi-story construction and sophisticated coursed masonry, illustrate the increasing complexity of Chaco social structure, which distinguished itself within the regional culture of the ancestral Pueblo and dominated the area for more than four centuries. The high incidence of storage areas indicate the probability that the Chacoans played a central economic role, and the great size and unusual features of the ceremonial kivas suggest that complex religious ceremony may have been significant in their lives. -- United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

While walls of buildings and kivas constructed a millennia ago still stand, the park's original visitor center with its museum, built in 1957, was razed about six years ago due to structural issues caused in part by eroding soils. When the $2.7 million replacement building, now standing in the exact same location to avoid disturbing any artifacts that might still be buried, was planned, it was decided that the new museum should include a collection of artifacts that could help tell the story of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived and traveled through Chaco Canyon, said Dabney Ford, who spent 30 years at Chaco, retiring about a year ago after working as the park's chief of cultural resources.

To tell the story, the Park Service reached out not only to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, but also the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of the Amerian Indian, both in Washington, D.C., for artifacts it could borrow. Several hundred pieces, from drinking vessels, bowls and jewelry to the frog, were to go into the exhibit, which had been planned with input from nearly two dozen Native American tribes that are affiliated with the historical park.

The project excited Dr. Thomas, who previously had worked with the Park Service to install an exhibit of artifacts associated with Aztec Ruins National Monument located not quite 70 miles due north of Chaco Culture.

"We do not have a hall here in New York showing much of that material and we should," he said. "I’ve been at the museum a long time and I haven’t been successful in getting that. So we bend over backwards, we’ve got researchers now working on our Chaco collection, we make it more than available to researchers. I think we do the best job in the country. And when it came time, 'Gee, a Chaco exhibit, yeah, we really ought to try to help make this work.'"

In negotiating the loan of nearly three dozen Chaco Culture objects to the Park Service, Dr. Thomas had some of his staff go over a facilities report prepared by the park staff.

When he heard third-hand last month that the exhibit was being canceled, he was dumbfounded.

“We’re not interested in putting artifacts in harm’s way," said Dr. Thomas. "There’s a fairly rigid facilities report that we require before we lend anything. And when that came through OK, we were assured that these artifacts would be safe. We agreed to make the loan and really bend some rules to make it happen. Then, of course, I talked to the superintendent, and he’s saying that it’s not OK at all. So we’re left to wonder -- which is it? Is the original facilities report correct or is the superintendent correct?”

Michael Quijano-West, superintendent of both Chaco Culture and Aztec Ruins, arrived at the parks in late November, after the facilities report had been shared with the involved museums. What he found at the park was that the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system was not properly operating for the museum space, which had been designed and built for about $1.3 million.

"I immediately recognized that we were not prepared. We did not have the situation on the ground where we could accept or bring those objects in," the superintendent said. “And so that’s when I asked our folks that they contact their contacts at these institutions to let them know that we would need to put a hold on this until we got the HVAC units on the ground and other issues that need to be taken are of corrected so that we would be in compliance with the agreements that had been created.” 

This rendering shows how the museum was to be laid out/NPS

To correct the problems -- the system was not properly maintaining temperature or humidity levels -- the Park Service has contacted the contractor that installed the HVAC system to correct the problems. How long it will take to fix the system is unknown, but Dr. Thomas was told by Ms. Bustard that the exhibit would be put off at least five years.

“It’s really up in the air right now," Superintendent Quijano-West said when asked when the museum space might be ready to stage the exhibit. "Quite frankly, we’re going to have to get the system running to the degree that it needs to. It’s kind of normal practice with museums that they want to see that the system is holding the temperature and the humidity over a period of time. We keep data loggers to show what the systems are doing. We’re assuming, because we haven’t discussed this detail yet, we’re assuming that most of the museums are going to want to see that it’s holding at least for a couple of months before they’ll be comfortable with sending the objects.”

To protect the artifacts, aside from HVAC system, a museum-quality display has been planned.

“The (exhibit) cases, they’re all gasketed cases with desiccant chambers," Ms. Ford said, explaining that this system protects artifacts within the cases from temperature and humidity fluctuations. "It can get hotter or colder outside and the cases will moderate the temperatures for a period of time."

Unfortunately, she recalled last week, the HVAC unit was a problem; it was loud, it hung down too low, and just didn't work properly. Ms. Ford said the HVAC contractor had been given very specific guidelines to meet in designing the system.

“Chaco has a 100-and-some-year history of weather," she said. "We collect weather data every single day, so we know pretty much what the range of temperatures are and so on. We had provided that to the contractors. ... And the contractor also knows the elevation there, and so the things I have heard most recently is that at 6,200 feet elevation, and with the extreme temperature fluctuations daily as well as seasonally, that the system can’t function within those parameters."

Though Chaco Culture's remote location can make a reliable stream of electricity a challenge at times, the Park Service had ordered a generator specifically to deal with any problems. That generator, said to be on par with generators used as backups for hospitals, has been delivered to the park, but has yet to be installed.

"We’re hoping that once we get everything working, both with the (HVAC) contractor and getting that generator installed, that it will help us get to where we can meet those standards," said Superintendent Quijano-West. "But until we get them all up and running and give them some time to show us that we can hold those standards, it’s hard for us to say (when the exhibit will move forward). There are a lot of moving pieces in this.

"Our plan is to get it to where it needs to be, but these things take time."

Allen Bohnert, a retired National Park Service curator whose resume includes ten years as the curator at the Park Service's Southeast Region Office as well as time spent as the curator of collections at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, now works as a safety consultant to museums, many in the park system. At Chaco Culture, he was contracted to help design a Museum Exhibit Emergency Preparedness Plan for the new facility. Part of that design entailed object recovery measures.

Mr. Bohnert said it's critical that the HVAC be able to consistently maintain environmental conditions in the museum space "for some of those very fragile, pre-Columbian objects, especially from Pueblo Bonito and Chaco."

If the HVAC challenges can be overcome, the former Park Service curator thought the museum space planned for Chaco would be a wonderful addition to the site.

“It may not be the same level of the design excellence of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or something, but certainly it would be able to preserve the objects and make them secure," he said.

Asked why the exhibit had to be at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in its remote location instead of Sante Fe or Albuquerque where more people might view it, Ms. Ford raised the significance of Chaco Canyon.

“What you see are these unbelievably magnificent buildings, and they’re empty. The prehistoric ones, the ancient buildings are monumental, they’re gigantic, they’re really phenomenal pieces of architecture," she said. 

"We wanted to show what a socioeconomic power center it really was. And to do that, it is certainly seen in the architecture, but most easily understood in the objects, because the objects are so special, so different, so unique, and there were so many of them," continued the archaeologist. "So our decision was to try to have a little taste of that in the exhibit. You come to Chaco, you work hard to get there, and you get to see it. We don’t say, 'Now you need to go to Santa Fe or Albuquerque and try to put the two together in your mind.'"

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It sounds as if the superintendent made a courageous decision here.  It would have been easy, and perhaps without any immediate backlash, to have allowed the exhibit to proceed.  Thanks for a decision that put the resource first.

This article, while fair, leaves out crucial information about Chaco's current management -- that is by combining the management of Chaco and Aztec at Aztec, there is literally nobody home at Chaco. The senior staff is not at the park;they are at Aztec, seventy five miles away. We can all discuss the financial issues facing the Service and wring our hands about the difficulties of managing our national patrimony but removing staff from an isolated park like Chaco means the resources are not being protected. You need people at the site observing and interacting with the resources on a daily basis. I know because I managed the park for seven and a half years and lived in the park. What has happened with park staffing since I left is tragic. Without people with knowledge and skills on site, the condition of the park's resources, including the museum,  will continue to degrade. 

I noticed what Barbara West mentioned on my visit to Chaco last spring.  There was far less staff at the park and they were not as knowledgeable as staff I have dealt with in the past.

As a professional engineer who has dealt with HVAC systems for over 40 years, the requirements for museum quality systems has been well known to design professionals for several decades, though problems in new facilities are unfortunately not that uncommon.  The usual method to correctly address the issues is to bring in a third party to review the design and installation to determine the root cause of the problem identify what is necessary to correct it, and if appropriate, at whose expense.

Good comments, Barbara and Robert.  At least a good decision by the current superintendent should be a reasonable starting point. 

As for staffing at Chaco, I wonder if the NPS is still operating the way it seemed to back when I was there.  People were moved so frequently it seemed that one was just beginning to become competent in a job when it was transfer time again.  As a result, we were pushed upward to greater responsibilities before we were really ready.  The result was a lot of good people who were, frankly, not really solidly comptent in what we were trying to do.

Is that still a problem?

An obvious question: whom from the Park Service "signed off" as the original HVAC system was acquired, installed, tested, and certified as to meeting the contract specifications and performance requirements? Is this another instance of a systemic NPS problem with not having qualified NPS personnel, or enough qualified NPS personnel at the right time or right place overseeing and "accepting" construction contracts and services? Or was this a politically expedient decision to rush through acceptance of a improperly specified, acquired, installed, tested, and accepted contract to buttress an annual performance review and award? There seems to be some missing pieces to the portrayal of this dilemma - a local issue or emblematic of a larger organizational problem?

The exhibit, once the HVAC system is worked out, ABSOLUTELY should be at Chaco and not anywhere else!  The drive in is part of the experience of getting to Chaco and I cannot wait to visit again.  It was an amazing journey and an incredible visit.  I am disheartened to hear of the staffing problems and was sorry to hear that resource staff is based at Aztec (also an amazing experience). 

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Chetro Ketl as seen through a doorway/NPS

Chaco Occupation

The greatest distinction of these prehistoric people lies in the massiveness of the multi-storied buildings they constructed, the excellence of their stone masonry, the high peak of proficiency shown in their arts and crafts, and the engineering knowledge evidenced by their highly developed water collecting and distribution systems.

Perhaps the most distinctive, yet least known aspect is the highly complex social and religious organization of the community which would have been necessary in achieving all they accomplished.

The economy was principally based on floodwater farming—at first corn and squash and later beans. These farm products were supplemented by the gathering of wild plants and seeds and by wild game which was snared or hunted. They did some weaving and made elaborate baskets, jewelry, and pottery. These items formed the basis for a lively trade with peoples in far distant places as indicated by the remains of numerous parrots, macaws, and copper bells.

During the earlier Basketmaker periods, these people lived in small circular structures called pithouses (because the floors were 1 to 3 feet below the surrounding ground level). The walls and flat roof were made of poles, chinked with bark and brush, and the whole covered with a thick layer of mud. Later these individual pithouses were replaced by multi-family dwellings built entirely above ground and with walls made of stone laid in adobe mortar. The small rectangular, flat-roofed rooms were at first built in rows or clusters. Later, additional rooms were built beside or on top of the earlier rooms and the development of the great multi-storied, multi-roomed pueblos began.

The largest of these villages was Pueblo Bonito which had approximately 800 rooms, including more than 30 kivas and 2 great kivas. This village covered more than 3 acres, in places was 4 or 5 stories high, and may have housed as many as 1,200 people.--NPS

Doorways in Pueblo Bonito/NPS

Musings From Chaco Culture National Historical Park

By Lee Dalton

It'™s a long, rough and dusty road from anywhere to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. But, boy, is it worth the trip! The fact that it'™s such a rough trip may have a lot to do with determining the kind of people who come to visit this place carved out of the high desert of northwestern New Mexico. Unlike visitors to so many other parks, these folks have a certain quality about them that hit me right off the bat. They are obviously accustomed to being outdoors. No flip-flop shoes. Wide brimmed hats. Canteens on every belt and a lot of knowledgeable talk about what we were all here to see.

Chaco is not a place for casual visitors who just stopped by on a whim because they were wondering what was behind that arrowhead sign.

I came in via the south route from Grants. Good highway for the first hundred miles or so where I met less than a dozen other vehicles. Then it'™s about 20 miles of dirt and rock and washboard. But, they tell me, the road was graded last month so it'™s in much better shape than usual. No sand dunes to push through. I was a bit worried about towing my little trailer, but slow and easy did the job and here I am. I probably managed an average speed of a blistering 20 mph! A few days later, I headed out of the park toward the east. Only four miles of really bad washboard on which I probably averaged 5 mph. But even that is a little faster than the folks who once lived here could travel.

Don'™t let the dire road descriptions discourage you, though. This road was actually much better than many other Navajo roads. At least it was today. Tomorrow may be another story altogether. The Park Service, however, has no choice but to post warnings galore. It'™s not a trip anyone should take casually. You need to be prepared for the possibility of a blown tire far from help and water. Being prepared is essential and those warnings might help keep some who are not out of trouble. And, I'™m sure, it has a lot to do with the quality of other visitors I met out here.

It may also help provide in modern visitors a sense of respect and even awe for those people who once lived here and built the monumental structures we have come to see. People who had to treasure every drop of liquid. People who, apparently without wheels or pack animals, literally carried huge logs for these buildings 40 or more miles across the same harsh land that threatened to flatten our tires. Logs so large that it'™s been estimated that 4,000 strokes of a stone axe were required to cut through each of them.

I won'™t even try to tell you all about the park. Do some homework on the park'™s website and then go see for yourself. In the meantime, however, here are some things you won'™t find on any website.

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One of the remaining walls at Pueblo Bonito/NPS

Sunset over Fajada Butte/NPS