The University of Arizona

Online Exhibitions Help Preserve Arizona History

By Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, University Communications | June 21, 2012

Visitors can explore the lost Spanish trails through an interactive map or design their own Navajo rug – all while having fun and becoming informed on the culture and history of the Southwest.

Arizona State Museum's 19th Annual Southwest Indian Art Fair 2012 Award of Excellence in Jewelrywent to Ernest Benally, Navajo/Diné and his “Butterfly Cuff.” Other award winners and their works are exhibited online. (Photo credit: Jannelle Weakly)
Arizona State Museum's 19th Annual Southwest Indian Art Fair 2012 Award of Excellence in Jewelrywent to Ernest Benally, Navajo/Diné and his “Butterfly Cuff.” Other award winners and their works are exhibited online. (Photo credit: Jannelle Weakly)
Online visitors can dress the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in a variety of traditional dresses. Here, she wears the Huipil style Zapotec blouse. Black commercial cloth with yellow and red plaid machine overstitiching. A gift of Wanda Hill. Collected 1945-50. Frida Paper Doll by Rhod Lauffer.
Online visitors can dress the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in a variety of traditional dresses. Here, she wears the Huipil style Zapotec blouse. Black commercial cloth with yellow and red plaid machine overstitiching. A gift of Wanda Hill. Collected 1945-50. Frida Paper Doll by Rhod Lauffer.

Exhibits showcasing the archaeology, culture and history of the Southwest come and go at Arizona State Museum, but many of those visual wonders are captured forever in interactive games and learning tools found on the museum's online exhibitions site.

The oldest and largest anthropology museum in the Southwest, established in 1893 by the Arizona Territorial Legislature, Arizona State Museum is the official permitting agency for archaeological and paleontological projects within the state and also is the state's official archaeological repository.

Its vast treasures include a comprehensive collection of American Indian basketry, totaling 25,000-plus woven pieces of rare and outstanding baskets, sandals, cradle boards, mats, cordage and preserved fibers representing every indigenous basket-making culture in North America.

The museum also houses the world's largest whole-vessel collection of Southwest Indian pottery as well as one of the nation's top Navajo textile collections.

In the research arena, the museum collaborates with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico and also conducts research on late prehispanic migrations, the emergence of the Salado phenomenon and connections between the ancient peoples of Arizona and present-day tribal communities.

To extend the life of some exhibitions and to share items and research previously not exhibited live, the museum has created an online presence enhanced with the museum's collections and its collective expertise on the Southwest.

Visitors can explore the lost Spanish trails through an interactive map or design their own Navajo rug – all while having fun and becoming informed on the culture and history of the Southwest.

"We know that having an online presence to display the collections and historical research of the museum is a separate experience than being at the museum in person. We look at the online presence as a means to share what we have with more people while motivating those interested to come in and see more," said Laura LePere, the senior Web developer and designer for Arizona State Museum.

LePere works with the museum's curators and educational team to develop Web pages and interactive components for the online exhibits.

The Navajo weaving exhibition featured the collaboration of three Navajo weavers and one museum scholar to organize the exhibition, which was open to the public from October 2004 through May 2005 in the museum's galleries.

The online exhibition features two virtual galleries with 19th century blankets from the museum's permanent collections and 20th century rugs from two private collections on loan. An interactive game, "From Sheep to Textile," shows how wool from a sheep gets made into a rug.

Another online exhibit is "What Would Frida Wear." The famous artist Frida Kahlo was well-known for her tendencies to wear native Mexican clothing, and the Donald and Dorothy Cordry Collection at the museum inspired the exhibit. Online visitors will learn about Mexican traditional clothing as they dress Frida in the folkloric costumes of the day. 

LePere said the museum's online presence receives 15,000 visits a month with a growing number of visitors sharing interactive links via Facebook or other social media sites.

Said LePere: "My satisfaction comes in building a resource that has lasting value."