Museum Renovations

Historic black-and-white photo of museum construction site: dug foundation, piles of sandstone blocks, wood scaffolding
Building the Museum Addition, 1935



The Chapin Mesa Museum, built between 1922-1925 is one of the oldest museums in the National Park Service. While there have been some changes over the years, the museum has never had a comprehensive upgrade.

The existing exhibits focus on the story of the park from the lens of 20th century archeology. Not only has the discipline of archeology changed over the years, but the original exhibits did not include the perspectives of the Native communities for whom this place is sacred. In addition, the current exhibits are not accessible, and cases don’t meet today’s curatorial standards.

A young woman smiles at a park visitor from behind the museum information desk with maps and tour information posted on the wall
Historic photo of museum information desk


Collaborative Exhibit Design

In 2019, Mesa Verde partnered with the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History (CU Boulder) to plan for the next century of the Chapin Mesa Museum. Together we are engaging Native communities, archeologists, and other stakeholders in a collaborative design process. The redesigned museum will tell a comprehensive story about Mesa Verde National Park from multiple perspectives.

The new exhibits will honor the historic nature of the building, provide accessible, interactive experiences, and protect irreplaceable cultural items. An added benefit of this partnership is the involvement of university students who are gaining invaluable learning experiences while making substantial contributions to this project.

From the start of this project a primary goal has been to work closely with the Pueblos and Tribes that have a special relationship to Mesa Verde. While the park has responded to Tribal requests to remove certain items from display in the past, we want to set a higher standard for this project. Together we aim to create a museum that is truly welcoming to Native communities and embraces indigenous knowledge.

After an in-depth content development process that created a framework for the new exhibits, we are ready to move into the Schematic Design phase of the project. We hope to have new exhibits ready to install by 2025.

A paved path leads to a stone masonry museum building surrounded by yuccas and pinyon and juniper trees
Chapin Mesa Museum


Native Interpretation

In the summer of 2019, through phone and in-person interviews conducted by Scarlett Engle (PhD Candidate, Anthropology, CU Boulder) and Mikayla Costales (MA 2020, Museum and Field Studies, CU Boulder), tribal community members provided advice on how to structure our collaboration. Following their advice, we began with a large meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico in January 2020 at which tribes determined appropriate representatives to work with Mesa Verde National Park and CU Boulder more directly on the project. In March 2020, these eight tribally selected representatives, renamed the Native Interpretation Working Group, had their first virtual meeting, and have worked closely on the redesign project ever since. Importantly, this group contributes to decision making throughout the process rather than having simply an advisory role. We respect the group members’ expertise and want them to feel their knowledge and contributions are valued as we work together.

A group photo of the 23 participants of the Tribal Collaboration Meeting, Albuquerque, 2020
Tribal Collaboration Meeting, Albuquerque, 2020

Exhibit Design Reference Guide

CU Boulder PhD student Scarlett Engle spent the summer of 2020 talking to tribal community members and museum professionals to put together a guide about culturally appropriate exhibit design. She documented tribal perspectives on everything from colors to building materials to fonts, and how visitors should feel in the exhibit space. The guide was reviewed and approved by the Native Interpretation Working Group and given to the exhibit designers for the museum exhibit project, the park, everyone interviewed, and the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for each tribe. Some topics that the guide goes into detail about include: use colors and building materials from the local area; all senses should be engaged in the exhibit; visitors should feel educated, welcomed, amazed, awakened, and thankful; emphasize that we are still here; each tribes’ language should be incorporated into the exhibits; include contemporary artwork. In short: be inspired by the place, be innovative and creative in how you interpret it, and consult with tribal members often.

For decades, visitors to Mesa Verde National Park enjoyed and learned from the diorama exhibit in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. The dioramas were created by workers and artists from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The figures are made of beeswax, balsam resin, and cotton, and feature fiberoptic lighting to illuminate hearths and rooms.

When the diorama exhibit opened in 1939, they were cutting-edge museum technology. Alfred Rowell, the WPA artist who painted some of the backdrops and made the human figures, went on to have a long career as a dioramist at the Field Museum in Chicago, and three people who were involved in the project went on to serve as park superintendents.

As part of the ongoing renovations and exhibit redesign of the museum, Mesa Verde National Park, in consultation with tribal community members, has decided that it is time to retire the diorama exhibit.

Visit the Museum Dioramas page for more information.

Last updated: May 15, 2024

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Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330



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