Heritage Center plans exhibit on famous Wetherill family

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 1:24 AM
A tentative layout of artifacts that will be displayed in the Wetherill exhibit at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
The introductory panel that will welcome visitors to the new exhibit on the Wetherill family at the Anasazi Heritage Center.

An exhibit arriving at the Anasazi Heritage Center in March will focus on the family that helped pioneer archaeology in Montezuma County.

“Trowels, Trading Posts and Travelers,” which opens March 10, will chronicle the lives of the Wetherill family, a clan of Irish Quakers who emigrated to the Mancos area during the 19th century. They are credited with putting Mesa Verde and other ancestral Pueblo ruins on the map, as well as being among the first to identify the ancient Basketmaker culture. Sarah Thomson, the Heritage Center’s exhibit developer, gave a presentation on the new exhibit at the Heritage Center’s annual volunteer appreciation luncheon on Saturday, in which she promised it would tell the Wetherills’ story in a detailed, interactive way.

Because of the family’s huge size and equally huge contributions to local archaeology, Thomson said it was difficult to narrow down the information about them in the exhibit to a single cohesive theme. She eventually decided to focus on their collaboration with the Native American tribes in the area, which she said was a key factor in their archaeological achievements.

“What it all boiled down to was the relationships that the Wetherills had with the people around them,” she said. “They were Quakers, and they believed in this concept of ‘inner light.’ They were accepting of Native Americans, women and people of all different backgrounds.”

This will be the second exhibit Thomson has designed for the Heritage Center. It will replace “Weaving Stories: Basketry in the Southwest,” which was displayed in the Special Exhibit Gallery from 2016 to 2017. Thomson has learned from her experience creating that exhibit, she said, and she hopes the new one will be even more fun and informative.

Visitors to the Wetherill exhibit will receive a “character card” at the entrance that contains some key facts about a member of the family, as well as a picture of their “signature artifact,” which will appear somewhere in the gallery. Part of the exhibit will attempt to re-create what the shelves in one of the Wetherills’ trading posts might have looked like. Other displays will include some of the family’s possessions, Native American artifacts they discovered, photos and audio recordings taken by them and some of their descendants. The collection is made up of the Heritage Center’s own artifacts and documents, as well as several items on loan from other collectors.

In her presentation, Thomson talked about some of the challenges she and the museum’s volunteers faced while planning the exhibit. For example, a loaned set of clothing had to be fumigated after museum staff discovered it was infested with bugs. But she also mentioned some unexpected surprises, like when she discovered evidence in an old catalogue that a Native American quiver in the Wetherills’ collection may have come from Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace.

In developing the exhibit, Thomson also worked with some descendants of the Wetherills to supplement her research. One of them, Marietta Wetherill Eaton, attended Saturday’s presentation to show her support for the project.

“Working with Sarah has been such a wonderful experience,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a very exciting and interesting exhibit.”

The exhibit will be on display for a year. Thomson said the Heritage Center will invite historians to give a few public presentations related to the Wetherills during that time, and she even hinted there may be a virtual exhibit available on the museum’s website sometime soon. In the meantime, volunteers and museum staff are in the process of re-painting and furnishing the gallery, and Thomson said she expects them to be done in plenty of time for the exhibit’s grand opening.

If you go

What: Grand opening of “Trowels, Trading Posts and Travelers” exhibit
When: 6 p.m. Friday, March 10
Where: Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 U.S. Highway 184, Dolores
Cost: Free
More information: Contact the museum at 970-882-5600
The exhibit will remain open during the museum’s regular hours through March 2018.