Header Photo: Riley Lang, 9, center, and dancers are in History Colorado Center to celebrate opening of Written on the Land Exhibit. Dec. 8, 2018. Written on the Land brings history to the present and talks about what contemporary lives look like for Ute tribal members. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
Following a tribal dance and drum performance, Steve Turner canvassed the History Colorado Center on Dec. 8 chatting with members of all three Ute tribes, about 300 of whom showed up to welcome “Written on the Land: Ute Voices, Ute History.”
“The exhibition program here is really coming to life,” said Turner, executive director of History Colorado. He noted the baseball-centric “Play Ball!,” which this summer pushed attendance at the center to its third-best since it opened in 2012.
Turner is quick to tout History Colorado’s plans for the next couple years, starting with a new podcast called “Forgotten Highways,” an elaborately researched exhibit on the history of beer, a Smithsonian exhibit on American democracy, and the educational and preservation gains made across his institution’s eight, statewide community museums.
“If people have questions about History Colorado, don’t take my word or anyone else’s. Come see for yourself,” said Turner, who’s marking the second year of History Colorado’s balanced budget and its third year with no legislative audit findings — which he called “critical to the next phase of serving the entire state.”
To its fiercest critics, however, History Colorado’s future has often looked muddier than the unpaved streets crisscrossing Denver in 1879, the year the state’s historical society was founded.
Despite moving into its $110 million new headquarters six years ago, budget cuts and staff turnover have gotten more attention than any single exhibition at its flagship museum and archive at 1200 Broadway. Following a 2014 audit that sounded the alarm on mismanagement, as well as shaky funding from declining gambling revenues, History Colorado slashed nearly two dozen positions and convinced another 40 part-timers to pare back their hours, all with the goal of shaving $3 million in expenses. (The agency currently employs 127 full-time staffers.)
Turner took over as director in 2016, promising exhibits about decidedly unstuffy subjects such as beer, cannabis and rock ‘n’ roll. Installing Patty Limerick, who runs the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, in the state-historian position also seemed like an innovative idea. At least initially.
“Personally, I am not interested in leaving a mess in my wake,” the notably opinionated author and academic told The Denver Post at the time.
However, over the summer Limerick penned a Denver Post op-ed criticizing History Colorado’s perceived faults: “history lite” exhibits, bureaucratic strangulation, and what she viewed as an abandonment of its mission to educate, inspire and connect the public. (Unlike the public, she already knew she was on her way out of there when she wrote the piece.)
“Rapid and forthright response to criticism is not currently the driving passion of our state historical society,” Limerick added in a column a month later, after leadership at the nonprofit ignored her request for a public forum.
Turner still has no comment on Limerick’s specific criticisms, and Limerick has not had any form of communication with History Colorado since her summer writings.
When asked about it, Turner points instead to the forward-thinking work his staff is doing: The new year will see the 300 millionth-dollar granted since the State Historical Fund was authorized in 1990, making it the largest of its kind in the nation. Major renovations totaling $1.85 million are underway at museums in historic buildings in Denver and Trinidad, such as the Byers-Evans House and Baca House, respectively.
As Turner noted, History Colorado’s annual budget has remained stable at about $20 million. Attendance this year is up 4 percent system-wide over 2017, reaching 332,979. There are even big plans to reinvent the center’s yawning atrium, which greets visitors with attractively designed space and not much else.
“Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects” at the History Colorado Center. The exhibit is culled from the state’s vast collection of artifacts. (Sam Adams for Tryba Architects, provided by History Colorado)
Public appeal is significant, since History Colorado is both a gatekeeper and shaper of Colorado’s identity. From tourists and curious locals to the thousands of schoolkids who shuffle through its institutions, diverse people look to History Colorado to set the tone for interpreting our region’s past. The chances to learn from the triumphs and mistakes of the native peoples and settlers in the Rocky Mountain West are endless.
And to be fair, history-museum troubles are not unique to Colorado. In July, the Philadelphia History Museum shuttered following budget difficulties, despite its vast wealth of artifacts that sit at the core of America’s cultural identity — and Philadelphia’s tourism industry. The news prompted Nonprofit Quarterly writer Eileen Cuniffe to wonder, “Do Local History Museums Have What It Takes?”
The answer varies by museum, of course. But History Colorado has moved quickly to make changes in recent months — even if it’s not acknowledging its critics publicly.
Between Limerick’s summer op-eds, the organization replaced her state-historian position with a five-person Council of State Historians. History Colorado’s board, which had been pared down from 23 self-appointed members to nine governor-appointees during the budget crisis, ballooned again to 13 members, including hands-on Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.
“All of this has been in planning for the better part of the last year,” Turner said. “And that’s sort of the irony about questions of transparency: We need state statutes to allow us to (make these changes), and the governor appointed our new board members. If any other cultural institution decided to do that, they would just do it.”
In October, History Colorado added the well-connected, respected University of Denver and cultural veteran Daniel Ritchie as head of its strategic planning committee. He’ll lead efforts to cook up the museum’s next five-to-10-year plan that guides History Colorado’s statewide museums, education programs, 15 million-object archive, and archaeological and preservation services.
“My work is out of gratitude and the belief that when we put our heads together, we can do just about anything,” Ritchie said in a press statement in October.
Limerick plans to continue holding History Colorado accountable. As part of her Intro to Western American Studies class at the University of Colorado in Boulder next semester, she’ll be directing some of her students to visit the History Colorado Center, write about what they see and compare it to the approach her own Center of the American West takes to understanding the state’s history.
“So if they won’t talk to me or my students, it’ll be really, really weird,” Limerick said of museum leadership. “To deal with this rural-urban divide in Colorado, race, immigration, fracking — any of these current issues of interest to the state — you have to be ready to deal with controversy head-on. You cannot dismiss criticism or refuse people who are trying to talk to you.”