When Jacob Monninger ’24 first visited the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village in New Mexico two years ago, he didn’t know that trip would lead him to his summer internship.
The history buff has visited many local museums across the United States, and said the Aztec Museum quickly became one of his favorites due to its diversity of collections of what he calls “a fascinating and underrated region of the country.”
He was drawn to the museum’s many unique features, like the “Pecos West” cyclorama, a hand-carved spinning diorama of Wild West scenes made by the folk artist and World War II veteran Valenty Zaharek.
“I have always had a strong interest in the history of tourism and roadside attraction culture. I have visited a lot of roadside attractions across America, and think the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village definitely counts as that,” said Monninger, a history major and digital film media minor from Fishers, Indiana.
“The first time I saw Zaharek’s Pecos West, I was mesmerized,” the senior recalled. “He displayed it as his own roadside attraction in Sedona, Arizona, throughout the 1970s. I think it is fantastic.”
While staying with family in New Mexico, Monninger made a couple more visits to the Aztec Museum, in addition to other historic locations across the state and the Southwest.
He connected with a few historical organizations in the Four Corners Regions throughout the years, and after sharing his plans of staying in the area for a couple of months this summer, was offered an internship with the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village.
“In the past I have volunteered with a few different historical organizations, including Conner Prairie and Indiana Landmarks — where I still hold the title as their youngest-ever trained tour guide — so I wanted to do more at a new and different institution,” Monninger said. “The Aztec Museum has a clear and important mission to document and preserve the long-ranging history of San Juan County, New Mexico, from the Ancestral Puebloans to today, which is something I am glad to be a part of.”
Monninger’s responsibilities vary as an intern. During operating hours, he helps open and close the museum, greets and answers questions of guests, and supervises all the structures on the two-acre campus, including more than 10 pioneer buildings, a historic caboose, and other exhibit buildings.
He also conducts research, often based on requests or sometimes personal curiosity.
“In the archives, I have searched through files — including one on a flying saucer crash and UFO symposium — books, and scrapbooks,” he said. “I have searched through decades of local newspapers on microfiche for specific articles. It’s fascinating to learn about the past and see how different things were but also how similar things are.”
The museum hosts one concert a month at the Pioneer Village grounds, often involving historical forms of music by New Mexico musicians, including Jane Voss and Hoyle Osborne. The two folksingers have “quite a story,” Monninger said, and have performed in concerts and festivals across North America since teaming up in 1976.
Monninger was asked to produce an oral history for the museum about Voss and Osborne, their influence on the folk music world, and their immense knowledge of vintage American songs from the late 19th century and on. He conducted a three-hour oral history interview with the musicians that will be the basis for a mini-documentary he’s in the process of completing.
“They have an incredible history together. They know and have worked with some of the great folk artists of the era from Elizabeth Cotton to Dave Van Ronk,” Monninger said earlier this summer in a Tri-City Record report. “Hoyle’s knowledge of musical Americana is astounding, and that’s in addition to being an incredible musician. As I talk to them, it’s definitely a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know you don’t know.’”
This project has been the most challenging and rewarding part of Monninger’s internship.
“I haven’t really done anything like this before,” Monninger explained. “Really taking the time to go through the archives is a time-consuming process. The research skills I’ve learned, like how to analyze, organize, and interpret information, from working on papers in my history classes helped me prepare for this kind of work.”
There was a technical learning curve too. Before the internship, Monninger had experience with photography and basic videography, but was unfamiliar with audio.
“Thankfully, we have a local partner here who has produced films in the past and he’s been helping me learn more about audio for the oral history project,” he said. “Learning from him is going to be very valuable for my future projects.”
After Wabash, Monninger plans to attend graduate school for digital media. He also hopes to continue traveling, taking photos, and producing films of his adventures.
“I always plan to be involved in the history and museum communities as well as the film communities. I want to blend those two passions together,” Monninger said. “Working at this small local museum, which has a lot of very dedicated volunteers and people who are passionate about these subjects, will be really valuable for whatever I do in the future.”