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Executive Director of A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center Jim Enote explains one of the pieces to guests.

Radical New Way to ‘Museum’: A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center

Heather Steinberger
9/18/14

Many people think of museums as dusty, static, boring places. They’re where you go if you want to see old bones, old artifacts, and the odd diorama. They’re not living, breathing spaces where cultures come alive.

Enter the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, which has done its best to change that perception. According to Jim Enote, the museum’s executive director, this unique museum gives guests an opportunity to join the Zuni community’s conversation — and experience an organization whose groundbreaking work is shaking up the field of contemporary museology.

The original idea for a Zuni museum took shape in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the tribe decided it needed an attraction to foster tourism and economic development. While a museum committee was able to earn grants to hire architects and plan a museum, lack of funds for building cut the project short at least twice, according to Enote, who has been involved since the very beginning.

“In the 1980s, a group of us said, ‘Why don’t we just do it ourselves?’” Enote remembered. “We discussed the notion of what a museum really is. It’s not just a building. And we asked ourselves, ‘What if we built this to serve the Zuni community?’ Tourism is important, but culture is very important too.

“A museum should help us understand why we are the way we are, so our museum should be by Zunis for Zunis,” he continued. “Our mission is to serve our Zuni community with programs and exhibits that help us to reflect on our past and are relevant to our current and future interests.”       

In 1992, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization. It began in one room, with exhibitions about Zuni life, from farming, cooking, and traditional foods to veterans issues. Then it moved to its current home, a former trading post built in 1910.

For the local Zuni community, the museum and heritage center is what Enote called a “contact zone,” a place that mediates knowledge systems. This is critical, he noted, because Zuni youth are growing up in a world learning knowledge systems that are non-Zuni.

“We live in a world with multiple knowledge systems,” he explained. “Here, young people can come, ask questions and be exposed to the unique Zuni way of looking at the world. The schools do a good job, and parents do their best, but there are sometimes gaps. Our role is to fill in these spaces, to create an enabling environment to understand the Zuni world.”   

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