Story written by Sara Knight | Photos provided by Museum of Northern Arizona

Entering its 91st year, the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) stands, a tribute to Flagstaff, the Colorado Plateau, and to the past, present and future that make this remarkable part of the country what it is.

Founded by the Colton’s of Pennsylvania, Harold S. Colton was a Zoology professor, and his wife Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton was an artist. Together, the couple created an institution where the scientific sits comfortably beside the aesthetic. MNA tells the story of the natural forces that forged this iconic American West, and of the human interactions with, and reactions to, the ever-changing western landscape.  

One brisk, fall day, the museum’s Director of Marketing, Kristan Hutchison, met me in the lobby of the impressively maintained, 83-year-old exhibit building. She explained that the building was constructed from local Malpaìs rock, and pointed out that the structure sits with an impressive view of the San Francisco peaks. Kristan became my guide as we traveled through time and across cultures, touring the museum’s many and varied exhibits.  

From the main lobby, we crossed the threshold of the west room and worked our way through the past. Here, one is taken back through the ages wherein a geological context of the area is established, from the Precambrian period through the present day.  

From geology and paleontology, we traversed back through the lobby and entered the archaeology exhibit through the door to the east. Here is where science and art begin to cross paths. In this space, one can grasp human history and learn how the peoples of the Colorado Plateau lived upon and related to the formation of our earth. 

Leaving archaeology and prehistory behind us, we ventured into a space where history meets the present day. This exhibit, titled “Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau,” is where the history within MNA begins to come to life. 

“One of the really important things about this gallery is how it was created,” Kristan said, explaining that it had opened in 2018, and represented the ten tribes of the Colorado Plateau. “The first thing we did as an institution was to go to each of those tribes and ask them, ‘do you want to be part of this exhibit?’. They all said, ‘yes.’ Then we involved them in the process. We had cultural consultants from every tribe working on selecting exactly what would be shown on display, what would be said. It is absolutely their story, their message, their exhibit.” 

The layout of the exhibit allows each of the ten tribes to be viewed side-by-side, revealing their similarities and also their unique qualities. An interactive table runs down the center of the room, giving children of all ages a hands-on learning opportunity.

Discussing some parallels and variances among the different tribes—including the segments of the past and the present the tribes chose to share—we made our way into the Lockett Fine Art Gallery.

If you have time to see nothing else at the museum, take a moment to visit the latest exhibit titled, “The Force is With Our People.” It opened on October 5, 2019, and will run through March 29, 2020. It is the culmination of past, present, and future, all accomplished in the context of Star Wars. 

This exhibit builds upon and moves beyond the traditional baskets, pottery, jewelry, and everyday artifacts that make up the first part of the museum experience. There are futuristic scenes set in iconic locations, and recognizable Star Wars characters reimagined in indigenous patterns, clothing, and contexts.  

“This gallery is often used for looking at contemporary issues of Native peoples,” Kristan explained. “The Force is With Our People” exists because an ethnologist on staff attended a few IndigiPopX shows (essentially, Indigenous Comic Con) and noticed that, more than any other theme demonstrated, it was Star Wars. He researched the phenomenon and decided to curate a show addressing his question: Why does Star Wars resonate so profoundly with the indigenous peoples in this area?

“The Force is With Our People” is a perfect representation of the museum’s motto: “I think of the Colorado Plateau as an area of layers,” Kristan said. “You have the layers of geology. Then you’ve got the layers of the ecology that are on top of it. Then you’ve got these layers of culture on top of that. And it’s so fascinating to look at those layers and see how they connect to each other.”

Tearing myself away from the “Force” exhibit was difficult, but I was not disappointed once I entered the Waddell Gallery. The Waddell Gallery is also a space for presenting the arts that are relevant to the Colorado Plateau.Coming to the Waddell Gallery will be “Searching for a Bigger Subject.” This exhibit will feature the artwork of Tony Foster as he examines the vastness of the Grand Canyon and the immensity of Mount Everest. “Searching for a Bigger Subject” will be on display from  November 16, 2019, and run through February 16, 2020. 

As we exited the Waddell Gallery and journeyed toward the Babbitt Gallery—which houses an impressive and beautiful ceramics and jewelry collection—it was in that moment that I realized the sheer size and significance of the museum. For at that moment, we had only covered about two-thirds of the main exhibit building. 

Kristan explained each one of the vibrant heritage festivals hosted at MNA every year, and she laughed when I told her the realization I was having. “That is something people always say: ‘It’s so much bigger than I realized!’ We have 214 acres and 36 buildings.” 

As we finally made our way back through the bookstore and peeked into the museum shop, I wished I had set aside more time. There was the community garden to explore—situated across the highway near the research facilities—and the collection center, which stores and protects the countless artifacts being preserved and studied there.  

I will, most certainly, revisit the Museum of Northern Arizona. It is an incredible resource for Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau. Upon its grounds, one can rediscover, time and time again, the whole history of this magnificent region. And, with every visit, new contexts are realized. The ever-changing rotation of exhibits, events, tours, research projects, and more, keep the information fresh and increasingly relevant. It truly is a space where history comes to life. EF