Home Is Where the Heart Is

The Women of the West Museum is alive and well, but at the moment, you can wander its halls only in cyberspace. Museum spokeswoman Jeannie Patton thinks it's just fine being a museum without walls for now; like pragmatic women throughout time, the people behind the scenes at WOW are geniuses at making do. "We don't have to have a building to be educational and interactive," Patton says of the organization's Virtual Museum, a comprehensive Web site offering changing exhibits, an interactive Story Quilt, an educational resource area and more. "It's a new way of envisioning museums."

Not that WOW wouldn't like to have a physical house to call home. To date, negotiations for a permanent site have either fallen through or remain in the planning stages. And in the meantime, its developers are simply not interested in waiting around: While searching for a place to build, WOW is moving ahead, full-throttle, with myriad projects that serve to further its unique vision. Some cynics might question why there needs to be such a museum, but Patton is adamant. "The history of the West is the history of diversity," she notes. In preliminary studies, she adds, WOW learned that "out of 8,000 museums in the U.S., fewer than ten had anything to do with women. It's a big hole in history that has not even been touched--just a big, gaping hole.

"The idea of the West resonates with a lot of people," Patton says. "It's the last frontier, a place where you can be free. These are wonderful connotations--space, sky, possibilities... We're trying to focus on where we fit in." For most people, the idea of Women of the West denotes the Annie Oakley-style cowgirl or the woman in a bonnet and a gingham dress crossing the prairie in a covered wagon. It's just not so, says Patton. "The pioneer woman is just a small part of the story," she explains. "The sky is the limit, just like it was in the mythical West. We want to tell the whole stories, the ones that go beyond the romance of the cowgirl."

The Women's History Trail Project is just one way WOW is trying to tell those tales. The inaugural leg of that trail, which was recently completed by fourth- and fifth-graders at Dora Moore Elementary School on Denver's Capitol Hill, resulted in a self-guided tour brochure compiled from information researched by students and available free to the public at the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau and other locations. The full story of its success really came out, though, during a recent student-led bus tour to trail sites.

It wasn't quite chaos as the kids milled around in front of Dora Moore, wearing black shorts and "Trail Guide" T-shirts. The kids identified themselves as "history detectives," and for good reason: The whole project was ultimately the product of their own investigative skills. Some carried hand-lettered and illustrated signs bearing the faces of some of the Capitol Hill neighborhood's famous women, past and present.

The buses arrived--those sturdy old yellow schoolbuses that many of the travelers hadn't set foot in in years--and sat humming curbside as festivities got under way. WOW and school officials extended thank-yous, and friendly words were heard from Frances Owens, Wilma Webb and Dottie Lamm (Owens and Lamm, present and past residents of the Governor's Mansion, were both interviewed by students for inclusion in the tour). And then everyone piled on to the buses.

Museum president Marcia Semmel, along for the ride, glowed with pride. The 130 kids were ready, rehearsed and assured, each primed for those fifteen minutes of fame. They'd already done a run-through for the cynical sixth-graders--ten days earlier in the pouring rain--and you can bet the crowd of parents, officials and curious onlookers made a far more receptive audience. The caravan rolled from onetime school principal Dora Moore's simple Victorian duplex to a succession of stately Denver squares, modest bungalows, mansions and even a 1930s deco-style apartment building, and the stories of their famous inhabitants unfolded.

Fifth-grader Maria Gonzalez says that when subjects were doled out for the project, she knew she wanted to do a singer. With some help from her teacher, she found out that folksinger Judy Collins had grown up nearby. Gonzalez's friend Nadia Dudukovich, also a fifth-grader, gathered data on Mamie Doud Eisenhower. Like all of their cohorts, they pieced together articles and information taken primarily from the Internet before writing the formal biographies they recited on location. In addition, the detectives interviewed such living dignitaries as state senator Pat Pascoe, Owens and Lamm and sought out seemingly ordinary neighbors with interesting stories to tell.

Semmel, who joined the museum about eighteen months ago, says WOW hopes to expand the trail to other parts of West, enlisting the help of other schools, developing a curriculum and eventually creating a network of tours throughout the region. Patton agrees: "You begin in your own backyard," she says, noting that plans are in the works to do a similar project in Boulder.

"Everything adapts to the Virtual Museum," Patton adds, which is fine with WOW. Although finding a temporary storefront location suitable for heavy foot traffic is a current concern, Patton says Semmel's vision since coming on has focused not on finding a site, but on establishing an identity. "We still want to build, but we're not going to sit around waiting," she says. "Our financing is healthy, and we've got really good grants. And the better our track record, the better we do finding funding.

"The idea keeps pulling people forward; our vision is bigger than the individuals--it's grassroots. You invent as you go along, you work with what you have," Patton continues. "We have enough trees now--we have a forest. Now we need to make a map."

--Froyd

Women of the West Virtual Museum,www.wowmuseum.org.

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