A Look at History: Arizona State Museum reopens, presents Saltillo sarape exhibit

By Laura Latzko

The Arizona State Museum has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the museum’s galleries reopened August 24, the museum was not silent. It focused on online programming, offering virtual talks, exhibits and educational materials that have continued. It is nothing new to the museum, as it’s had an online presence since 2000.

Lisa Falk, head of community outreach for the museum, says the virtual programming has been popular and has connected the museum to audiences in other countries, including Belgium, Japan, Canada, Russia and Mexico.

“We are putting a lot of energy into both physical exhibit in the museum and online exhibits,” Falk says.

An online lecture series on walls and other border barriers drew more than 17,000 attendees. Falk says although the museum is continuing to evolve, its mission is the same.

“We want to engage people with the wonderful stories, traditions and histories of our region and how people understand them, appreciate them and are inspired by them,” Falk says.

Visitors who have been to the museum before will notice changes now that it’s open.

Falk says the museum was impacted financially by the pandemic, and it has had make cutbacks to its staff. This contributed to the Tuesday to Friday hours.

“When people come to the museum, the admission helps to support our visitor services team,” Falk says.

An archaeological repository for the state, the museum is home to expansive collections of Native American basketry and pottery, Navajo textiles, vertebrate specimens, archaeological artifacts, Mexican folk masks and Hopi katsina dolls.

The museum also offers an extensive photography collection, archives and anthropological field notes.

Students and researchers from around the world utilize the collections for anthropology, ethnohistory, zooarchaeology and ethnology research. Along with research opportunities, the museum offers classroom, laboratory, travel and field study opportunities.

The museum’s programming is often focused on different Indigenous groups that have lived in and shaped the region’s culture and history.

The museum’s exhibits, workshops, videos, blogs, virtual talks and tours have been designed to educate different groups.

Falk says museum staff members, like herself, have become more mindful of the importance of online programming. This is why the museum has created virtual versions of different exhibitions, including its pottery exhibit.

With its reopening, the museum will present a new display called “Wrapped in Color: Legacies of the Mexican Sarape,” which was co-curated and features pieces from Zapotec textile artist Porfirio Gutierrez.

Gutierrez worked with Falk and Andrew Higgins.

The exhibition runs through July 2022 and will have virtual versions in English and Spanish. Guests can learn more about the Saltillo sarape, a blanket-like garment with a slit in the center. They were traditionally worn by caballero cowboys/landowners and associated with Saltillo, the capital city of the Mexican state Coahuila.

These pieces were finely made and marked prestige and wealth.

“To me, it holds tremendous value not only as an object but also as history. In so many ways, these are the stories of the people that wove them,” Gutierrez says. “These are the stories of people that contributed to the artistic style, especially the Indigenous people.

“For me, working on this project, it was such an honor. It was an opportunity for me to show the artist sensibility of the Indigenous people as an artist continually honoring them through my own work.”

His experiences of living in multiple countries and observing different cultures have impacted his work. Gutierrez, who also has a studio in Ventura, California, says contemporary architecture in California has also influenced his art. His work is guided by his spiritual beliefs

“For me, I do what I do because the greater being blessed my hands,” Gutierrez says. “It is a calling. It is not me that chose the work. It’s the work that chose me to do what I do.”

An opening for the exhibition, with the curators present, is Saturday, October 23, and will include curator-led tours and hands-on activities. Gutierrez will give a weaving demonstration and have items for sale.

The artist will also offer a hands-on natural dying workshop, with chances to learn about Zapotec traditions and natural dying, on Sunday, October 24. Registration is required for the workshop.

Gutierrez will give a virtual talk about Oaxacan and Zapotec history and culture 6 p.m. Tuesday, September 14. Gutierrez and master Navajo weaver Lynda Pete Ornelas at 6 p.m. Tuesday, November 9, will discuss the connections between Saltillo and Navajo weaving.

The museum’s Zoom Talk Series will feature virtual talks on the archaeology of ancient Zapotec sites Monte Alban and Mitla; the history of Oaxacan food, drinks and crafts; the preservation and research of textiles; and photographing weaving traditions.

In May 2022, the museum will have opportunities to visit Gutierrez’s studio, try natural dying techniques, sample Zapotec dishes and take a private tour of Huntington Library’s textile collection.

A tour in October 2022 will let participants experience Zapotec Dia de Los Muertos traditions with Gutierrez and his family in Oaxaca. They will visit cultural sites, try natural dying and tour other artist studios.

At the Arizona State Museum, visitors can learn about different facets of the region’s and the country’s history through different displays.

Along with the new sarape exhibition, the museum has a display called “Pahko’ora/Pahko’ola: Mayo and Yaqui Masks from the James S. Griffith Collection.” It showcases Mayo and Yaqui ceremonial masks that have been made and used by Mayo and Yaqui communities in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

The display was only open five months before the museum’s closing and has been extended through the end of the year.

Guests can also peruse the museum’s American Treasure collections of basketry, pottery and photography and a special poster exhibition from the Smithsonian called “Righting a Wrong One: Japanese Americans and WWII.”

The poster exhibit looks at the imprisonment of Japanese people and Japanese Americans during World War II and encourages viewers to have dialogues on immigration, identity, and civil and human rights topics.