A Spaced Odyssey

As the Denver Museum of Nature & Science looks to the future, employees worry that its original mission has been lost.

The Hall of Life is a series of exhibits that engage all of a visitor's senses. Rather than simply read informative signs about health issues, people interact with the displays: They can measure their blood pressure and stress levels; they can test their sense of smell by picking up a phone receiver and choosing the scent that wafts through (chocolate, burning wood, pizza); they can sit in a phone booth and discover how well they identify sounds by selecting the photograph that matches the one they hear.

Museum staffers noticed that children and grownups alike were more interested in exhibits they could manipulate. So in 1995, when the museum relocated its renowned dinosaur collection to the new Prehistoric Journey exhibit, there was no question that it would include interactive components. "It's a very natural evolution for the museum," Decatur explains. "The entire world is moving toward interactivity."

Once Prehistoric Journey was complete, the museum started looking for its next big project.

Museum CEO Raylene Decatur pushed for new projects at the museum, including the west atrium.
Denver Business Journal
Museum CEO Raylene Decatur pushed for new projects at the museum, including the west atrium.
The west atrium.
James Bludworth
The west atrium.

In the meantime, it renovated some of its wildlife exhibits -- Edge of the Wild and Explore Colorado: From Plains to Peaks -- to make them more interactive. The resulting exhibits won awards from the American Association of Museums. "We were one of the two or three most successful museums in the country," Preston says. "Morale was at an all-time high."

"The institution was on the brink of breaking into the front ranks of natural-history museums," adds Bob Pickering, who chaired the anthropology department. A survey conducted a few years ago by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting determined that the museum had the highest name recognition of all cultural institutions in the six-county metro area. Audiences were wooed by spectacular exhibits focusing on the Aztecs and China, and the museum saw its attendance soar.

The idea of a space-science exhibit had bounced around for years, and it seemed like a logical move. After all, not only is space the next frontier, but with a large portion of the country's science industry based in Colorado, the potential for funding was excellent.

The space-science initiative finally found its champion in Decatur. She was deputy director of the Maryland Science Center when the Denver museum hired her in January 1995 to take over for John Welles, who retired as director in 1994.

"This museum has never been purely natural history," Decatur says. "If you look at natural history in the nineteenth century, they were interpreting the earth; now we're interpreting Earth's greater role in the universe."

Because of its limited infrastructure, a planetarium alone couldn't provide that interpretation. So the museum started exploring its options. Focus groups and surveys showed that space science was something the public wanted at the museum; market research also revealed that people were more interested in how science is conducted in space than the hardware that gets people there.

Over the next few years, the concept for a space project grew from a general idea to a specific one: The museum would devote approximately 40,000 square feet of existing museum property adjacent to the west atrium to a permanent exhibit called Space Odyssey. It would contain interactive displays that would leave visitors feeling as though they were traveling through space. And the old planetarium would be upgraded to match the high-tech features of Space Odyssey.

"When Space Odyssey was first conceived, there was a lot of enthusiasm to think outside the box and create a state-of-the-art, highly interactive exhibit," says a current museum employee. "Everyone was intoxicated by the idea."

But other changes at the museum were sobering.

After Decatur took over, the feel of the place changed drastically. The museum took on a more corporate atmosphere. Employees had to answer to a strict chain of command, and that alienated many of the scientists accustomed to working in a laid-back environment.

The board even changed Decatur's title from Director to President and CEO "to reflect the current practices of the museum," according to the museum's spokeswoman.

"This building was made one-third larger through additions in the '90s, and the institution went up not only in size, but in professionalism," Decatur explains. "When an organization grows, it changes the relationships people have with each other."

One of those relationships was with a museum club called the Friends of Anthropology. Up until three years ago, the club's 150 members held monthly meetings at the museum and raised money for the anthropology department through membership dues. "They were moving from being the loving neighborhood museum to becoming corporate," says Tony Baker, a past president of the group. "They wanted us to submit a budget to them! We were volunteers; why should we create a budget when we weren't getting paid?

"They created an environment that made it difficult to continue holding these meetings, and the volunteers didn't feel like banging their heads against the wall anymore, so we just finally gave up."

Another club called the Friends of Earth Sciences also disbanded.

According to museum spokeswoman Julia Taylor, the two groups had been "created to inform the public about research activities. Now we educate the public with newsletters and a more proactive press strategy within the museum."

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