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Museum of Spanish Colonial Art to Open July 21 - 2002-05-24

A new museum that opens its doors on July 21 in Santa Fe, New Mexico examines a significant and often overlooked chapter of American history. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art will showcase the cultural heritage of the Spanish Empire that once stretched from Madrid to the Americas and the Philippines.

Between 1519, when the Spaniards first reached Mexico, and 1565, when they conquered the Philippines, the Spanish culture became truly global.

One of the northernmost points of Spain's empire in the Americas was Santa Fe, a small town that centuries later would become the capital of the U.S. state of New Mexico and a well known artists' colony.

In 1925, a group of local artists decided that the rich heritage of Spanish colonial art in Santa Fe needed protection. They founded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and hoped to open a museum solely devoted to this chapter of American cultural history. Now, almost 80 years later, their dream is finally becoming a reality.

Stuart Ashman, the director of the new Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, says, first and foremost, it attempts to present the history of the Americas and the United States from a different perspective.

"We are dedicating the museum to what we feel are the first settlers of the United States, the Hispanic community. The Hispanic people were in New Mexico and other parts of the southwest before the Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock," Mr. Ashman said.

Although, the museum is not yet open, some critics have said the history of the Spanish Conquest, including violent attacks on Native Americans and their culture, should not be celebrated at all. Carmella Padilla, the author of the new museum's catalogue, disagrees, saying it would be a mistake to ignore these chapters of the past.

"You cannot deny the fact that there were some very horrible aspects of the Conquest which are regrettable but which are part of history. We do not feel that we are here to judge what was necessarily right or wrong or what is politically correct or not. We are here to acknowledge that there were a lot of wonderful artistic contributions in the New World that resulted from the Conquest. And also a lot of things that eventually got intermingled among the cultures," she said.

According to Ms. Padilla, the new museum gives viewers a chance to observe the process of one culture opening up to outside influences. This can be seen in the museum's debut exhibit "Connections in Spanish Colonial Art."

"For instance, a Russian icon made its way from Spain to Mexico into New Mexico during the Colonial period, and perhaps an artist who was working at the time in Santa Fe might have looked at one of those works and taken some influence from it. Not necessarily replicated or copied it, but taken some aspect of influence from it," Ms. Padilla said.

The exhibit also shows how early Spanish settlers incorporated aspects of Native American traditions into their culture.

Much of the museum space is devoted, however, to religious art since the Catholic themes always figured prominently in Spanish Colonial culture. And many utilitarian objects on display from weapons and hand tools to spurs and cattle brands reflect how people lived during that period of history.

Overall, the museum tries to examine the Spanish-Colonial roots of the United States as thoroughly as possible, says its director, Stuart Ashman. Mr. Ashman said this chapter of history has not received as much attention as some other cultural traditions that have shaped the United States.

"After the events of September 11th, Americans have begun to examine themselves in a new way, asking themselves what it means to be an American. Americans are really a blend of many different cultures and civilizations, and now the Hispanic culture is coming to the forefront as being perhaps the most important one at this time. There are predictions that by 2050, the Hispanic community will be the majority in the United States. Given that, it is time for the United States to take a look at what the Hispanic culture has been doing, what they have to offer to the big melting pot that is American culture," Mr. Ashman said.

The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico will open its doors on July 21.