Built 1610–1612, it’s one of the oldest government buildings in the United States, giving it plenty of time to change character (from Spanish colonial adobe to Greek revival wood trim in the territorial era to a brief Victorian phase and back to spiffier adobe in 1909) and accumulate stories: De Vargas fought the Indian rebels here room by room when he retook the city in 1693, ill-fated Mexican governor Albino Pérez was beheaded in his office in 1837, and Governor Lew Wallace penned Ben Hur here in the late 1870s.
Eighty percent of the museum’s collection is in storage, so an expansion, slated to finish in May 2009, will add a little breathing room. What you can see in the meantime: trinkets and photos from the 19th century, including the oldest daguerreotype in the state—which happens to be a portrait of Padre Antonio Martinez, a folk hero of Taos .
You’ll also see the beautiful 18th-century Segesser hide paintings, two wall-size panels of buffalo skin depicting, on one, a meeting between two Indian tribes, and on the other, a battle between the French and a Spanish expedition in Nebraska. These works, along with the room they’re in (trimmed with 1909 murals of the Puyé cliffs) are worth the price of admission.
In a couple of the restored furnished rooms, you can compare the living conditions of the Mexican leadership circa 1845 to the relative comfort the U.S. governor enjoyed in 1893.
Walking tours depart from the Lincoln Avenue side of the museum at 10:15 a.m. (Mon.–Sat. summer only, $10), covering all the plaza-area highlights in about two hours. You can also buy a museum pass here for $18 that grants you admission to this and four other exhibition spaces—the New Mexico Museum of Art , the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture , the Museum of International Folk Art , and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art ; the pass is good for four days.
A $12 pass gets you entrance just to this place and the New Mexico Museum of Art.