For the past twelve years, I’ve been helping a community in eastern Arizona’s Mogollon Highlands preserve, protect, and interpret a unique ancient place now known as Casa Malpais. Because they are located at cooler elevations in and around the White Mountains, the towns of these highlands have long been summer vacation destinations for scorched residents of the Tucson and Phoenix Basins. Springerville is one of the largest small towns in the area, and it is the host community for the Casa Malpais museum.
The situation is probably familiar to many public archaeologists and heritage site managers: a small town with an impressive, partially excavated archaeological site, a small museum, and limited resources. Add to this mounting stabilization costs, an economic crisis crippling the local economy and regional tourism, horrific summer wildfires, and a political climate of austerity.
Against those odds, however, the Town of Springerville and the residents of nearby Eagar have chosen to invest in historic preservation, heritage preservation, and the arts. This past weekend, I had the honor of contributing to one part of this effort, a new exhibition of Adriel Heisey’s fine art photography at the Springerville Heritage Center.
I should take a step back to note that none of this would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the Little Colorado Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society. Volunteer tour guides from the society showed such skill and expertise in public interpretation that Archaeology Southwest’s President, William Doelle, was moved to establish our partnership with the Town of Springerville and the Casa Malpais Museum. The guides who shared the Casa Malpais story did an excellent job of interpreting the ancient site, and they carried it forward by integrating local history into a cohesive narrative. This situated visitors to their own place in a rich landscape across time and space, in a way few other interpretive sites in the Southwest have matched.
Although public interpretation was incredibly effective, the site itself was collapsing. Excavations had ceased some ten years before, and years of deferred stabilization had begun to take a toll on fragile ancient walls. And so began my twelve years of collaborating with the Town of Springerville. Through this partnership, I’ve learned that community-based archaeology projects—the actual practice of Preservation Archaeology—require one to wear a lot of different hats. Keeping a site stabilized and a museum open requires diverse partnership efforts. Several of our joint efforts over the years are worth their own blog posts (and see Matt Peeples’s previous post about the Archaeology Road Show).
The economic collapse of 2007 was old news in Springerville: the loss of a timber industry already put the town in serious economic trouble, and during the collapse, Apache County became the second poorest in the nation. Local unemployment reached nearly 30 percent. Despite these financial calamities, the town soldiered on, continuing to support a staff position for the Casa Malpais Museum, and continuing a long-term preservation effort on the historic Springerville schoolhouse, which the town was remodeling into spaces for several museums. Just when things did not seem like they could get much worse, the 2011 Wallow Fire—the largest in Arizona history—preempted the usually reliable summer tourist season.
Nevertheless, Springerville opened the Heritage Center on Febuary 25, 2012. It features a conference room and theater space, a new home for the Casa Malpais Museum, a gallery sharing the story of the town’s pioneering Becker family, and galleries displaying the Cushman Collection of seventeenth-century European art and furnishings. (Yes, a work by Rembrandt is on display in Springerville. Who knew?)
The Heritage Center opening was a proud day for Springerville, but summer 2012 visitation figures for the Casa Malpais Museum still had not recovered to levels recorded in the seasons before the Wallow Fire. After receiving some unexpected funds unspent from a 2006 Preserve America grant (thank you, Laura Bush), we were able to develop a new interpretive program aimed at driving heritage tourism toward Casa Malpais. Thinking strategically, we had been collecting visitor survey data indicating that most visitation to the museum was coming from hotels and resorts in the White Mountain region. We decided to sponsor a new exhibition for the Heritage Center, and to create freestanding information kiosks about Casa Malpais for these hotels and resorts.
Then, as good fortune would (finally) have it, through the yeoman’s efforts of Casa Malpais Museum manager Greg Cross, the Springerville Heritage Center was selected as a host for the Smithsonian’s Journey Stories exhibit in the late summer of 2013. Great news! We would have our photography exhibition on display for the first half of the summer, and a nationally acclaimed exhibit would follow us in August.
Archaeology Southwest hired master aerial photographer Adriel Heisey to collect images for an exhibition that eventually became “White Mountain Aerial Delights.” One of the best aspects of the exhibition is that it has been curated by the community. At a February town hall meeting, participants selected thirteen of eighty possible prints for the exhibition. Adriel then printed the images with his own large-format archival print process, creating huge, fascinating photographs that share the mystery of Casa Malpais and convey the majestic landscape of the White Mountains and the astounding volcanic topography of the Springerville lava field.
The exhibit opened last Saturday evening, and thirty guests attended, many of whom learned of the event through our marketing and information kiosks at hotels and resorts. Adriel gave a dynamic presentation on his photographic process and his unique perspective on the culture, history, and geology of the White Mountains.
If you find yourself in the Mogollon Highlands of Arizona this summer, I enthusiastically encourage you to visit the Springerville Heritage Center. Enjoy “White Mountain Aerial Delights” and the other collections of ancient and historic arts, and take what I promise will be an unforgettable tour of Casa Malpais, one of the most extraordinary ancient villages in all of North America.
The Casa Malpais Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday at the Springerville Heritage Center, 418 E. Main St., Springerville, AZ. Call 928-333-5375 for tour reservations or more information.