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The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge: A Community Effort

The exhibits in the facility’s new visitor center were developed with significant community input and involvement.
Authored by
Jenny Kvapil

The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge exists today because the local community was dedicated to its founding—and keeping the community closely involved is essential to the Refuge’s mission of creating a Connected Conservation Community. That’s why, when it was time to design and develop exhibits for the Refuge’s new visitor center, the community was included, consulted, and represented.

Community Input Meeting

As the project took shape in February of 2020, the team hosted a community input meeting at the Mountain View Community Center with about 40 people in attendance. The Ideum team presented initial exhibit concepts and the attendees provided feedback, leading to several key design changes, such as the addition of storage space for activities for the Refuge’s youngest visitors, the inclusion of culturally significant plants (such as Yerba mansa), reworking an early concept that ultimately became Voices of the Valley, and making artistic adjustments to ensure that illustrations were more local and relevant.

Community Gathering Space

The Refuge team wanted to make sure that the community was not only honored in the exhibit space but also given a place to gather and connect. With this goal in mind, our exhibition design dedicated approximately half of the available space to a Community Gathering Space. The area was meant to be inviting, with a carpeted floor, comfortable chairs, a wall of bench seating, and ottomans that could be easily rearranged. We incorporated electrical outlets into the bench structures to facilitate charging personal devices, and storage within the benches provides a home for activity boxes. A large mural by local artist Haley Greenfeather English infuses the space with a welcoming local feel and bright, cheerful colors.

The Ideum and Refuge teams wanted to invite the community into the space, but also to include local people in the development of the exhibits themselves. The resulting impact of community inclusion can be seen in many ways:

Tiwa Words

We collaborated with representatives from the Pueblo of Isleta to share nature-themed words in the Tiwa language. This was no small task, because the Tiwa language is not a written language; spellings are phonetic and could therefore be different depending on the speaker. Our partners kindly and diligently worked to provide spellings for inclusion in the space, and our fabrication team laser-cut these words into wooden ottomans that serve as both seats and work surfaces for younger visitors. Text is presented in English and Spanish as well.

Refuge Story Art

A Refuge Story is a digital interactive that brings a piece of custom artwork to life. Local artist Vincent Telles provided the beautiful artwork that was digitized for the exhibit, allowing visitors to tap on different elements to call up information about the history of the Refuge and its founding. In addition to featuring local art, a team of community consultants, community members, and Refuge staff reviewed the exhibit content and worked together to develop the story.

Voices of the Valley

This digital interactive presents the voices and stories of community members as they recount how they feel personally connected to the outdoors in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Fourteen storytellers share their tales of childhood explorations, meaningful community work, and perspectives about this special place. Some storytellers also provided imagery, which helps visitors connect to the content and gain a sense of place.

Life Zones: Backyard and Backyard Story

The Backyard content included in both the Life Zones and Backyard Story exhibits was developed in consultation with the Friends of Valle de Oro’s ABQ Backyard Refuge Program team members. The team guided the selection of species included in the illustrations, crafted the messaging, and helped source and select location-appropriate sounds to be included in the soundscape.

Share Your Voice

One side of the space’s central island cabinet is a whiteboard and graphic panel which displays a thought-provoking prompt for visitors to consider. Simple supplies like notecards and pencils are provided so visitors can share their thoughts with Refuge staff and each other.

Community Art

An art installation is displayed on the wall behind the welcome desk. This artwork is intended to honor the community’s achievement in establishing the Refuge. In this same vein, we asked the community to help create the artwork itself. Art kits and instructions were mailed to anyone interested, and participants created their artworks and returned them to the project team. (A welcome opportunity for connection during the pandemic!)

The pieces that participants created work together to share the community’s connection to the outdoors in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. The overall piece is titled Querencia, which means a place where a person feels at home, finds their core strength, and becomes their true self. These works illuminate the idea that the Middle Rio Grande Valley is a special place for many people. The Refuge is the result of community efforts, just as the artwork is here. Even the materials (wood panels) represent building blocks that create and support something greater.

Community Consultants and the Friends of Valle de Oro NWR

Finally, a team of six consultants, as well as members of the Friends of Valle de Oro NWR, reviewed the exhibit concepts and content. They provided detailed feedback and recommendations and also reviewed the Spanish language text included in the exhibits. They even lent their voices, in both the Voices of the Valley exhibit and through the audio accessibility guide for blind and low-vision visitors. Ideum and the Refuge team are deeply grateful for the time, energy, attention, and expertise these contributors provided.