I’ve had an unusual amount of anticipation in visiting this museum, and not only because I am a huge fan of Colorado history. Fun fact of the day: I actually worked at the Colorado History Museum during the big move out (it is now known as the History Colorado Center, because switching the words “Colorado” and “History” somehow makes it sound cooler). I began there as a volunteer in September 2009, packing Ancient Puebloan pottery. I was eventually hired on in November as a full-time Collections Move Assistant in charge of the framed works, since the Collections Manager knew of my work with art conservation. I got to see much of the collection until we completed the move out in April 2010, and let me tell you: there is A LOT of stuff there. I mean an ABSURD amount of stuff, some of which was cool and some of which was a little questionable: THOUSANDS of pieces of pottery, photographs, Native American artifacts, random historical things like food tins and dolls, computer parts from the 1970’s. In all, there are about 15 million historic artifacts. The actual move out was like a marathon sprint, particularly near the end: at one point I was working 60 hours, 7 days a week, though some of my coworkers actually set up tents in the museum because their commute was so long and they had so much to get done. People cried a lot near the end, and all of us were deathly pale because we had been doing nothing but working in a basement. Despite the stress, it was a lot of fun and absolutely fascinating. It also contributed to my change in career, as I discovered that I was pretty good at keeping track of things (and also, my last rejections to art conservation school happened while I was working there).
The old museum was a pretty sorry excuse for one, mostly because it was never built as a proper museum facility. The Colorado Historical Society had an agreement with the Judicial Center next door that they would have a 25 year lease on the property before the facility would be torn down for a new Judicial Center. The new History Colorado Center, which opened April of this year, cost $110 million, with another $33 million for state-of-the-art displays, archival storage, and a research center. There is over 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, a whole floor of office space, and another floor for special events. The building was designed by Tryba Architects and is considered to be the finest building ever conceived by David Tryba. Considering how last-minute the move out process was, I cannot say that I am the least bit surprised that the exhibit spaces in the new museum seemed half-finished.
I am sure that there was a lot of pressure from the higher-ups to get the museum up and running as quickly as possible. Non-museum people don’t realize how hard it is to get an exhibit put together when the curator is completely displaced in a former newspaper office, let alone when one has an actual museum to work in during the preparation. Therefore, I understand why there were only three legitimate exhibits to see: Destination Colorado, which was an exhibit dedicated to the ghost town Keota; Colorado Stories, which examined some major aspects/milestones in Colorado history, from skiing and mining histories to less savory events such as the Japanese-American internment camp, Camp Amache, to the Sand Creek Massacre to the KKK; and Legorado, a diorama made entirely out of Legos that looks at Colorado’s past, present, and future.
I chose a good day to visit the museum, because when I got there, the Denver Singers and Native American Dancers were performing traditional tribal dances in the atrium. The $33 million partially dedicated to exhibit technology was well spent and made the exhibits more interactive and fun (though I will never understand why people don’t like history, I’m pretty sure most people find it a bit boring, which makes LED screens with costumed narrators necessary). The simulated ski jump in Colorado Stories was quite popular, which required one to put their feet on tilting skis while watching a projection of an actual ski jump. I was particularly fond of Legorado, which was painstakingly detailed and quite amusing in parts: the detectives looking at a skeleton in the orchard and at horse poo at the rodeo were particularly funny. It also really made me want to play Lego Pirates of the Caribbean on the Xbox, which I may or may not have done when I got home.
Though I understand how difficult it must have been to get the exhibits put together, that does not mean I was any less disappointed (although “disappointed” may be too strong a word– “somewhat let down” is a perhaps a better way to describe it). A lot of the exhibition space was completely empty. Colorado Stories, while an objective look (i.e. it looks at both the good and the bad) at snippets of Colorado history, felt very disjointed and rushed. Though the look at the town of Keota was kind of interesting, part of me was like, “So… why should I care this much about it?”
A cursory look into other reviews for the new History Colorado Center, which opened in April of this year, have proven to be mixed. As usual, the New York Times proves its writers to be unfailingly elitist with an article opening with the following sentence: “An East Coast visitor’s first reaction, provincially enough, has to be skepticism: does Colorado even have that much history?” It asks if it was really necessary to spend $110 million on a new facility for a state that is 140 years old. In all fairness, the article eventually concludes that Colorado is in fact worth such a fabulous facility, though it is still lacking in a coherent and complete historical retelling. At the same time, Colorado’s own Michael Paglia wrote a review that boasted about the amazing architecture, then dedicated the last third of the article to everything that sucked about what was actually in the museum. He then wrote another piece that listed 10 exhibition ideas that he thought they should have opened with. Needless to say, a lot of people have not reacted well to these opinions, since he is more or less bashing the people who make the museum work.
I’m looking forward to going back in the Fall, when Denver A-Z opens. And I think things will definitely be “fully operational” by next Spring. Above all, I feel an incredible amount of sympathy for the museum staff, because I think they were not given enough time to unpack enough of the collection, nor enough resources to give the curators enough time to prepare some stellar exhibits. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my new book, The Murals of Colorado: Walls that Speak. (Fun fact of the day #2: my name is mentioned in the book!)