A Spaced Odyssey

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

Complaints about changes in workplace culture may seem petty, but employees say the changes affected their work adversely. "Before Raylene came, there were fewer meetings, productivity was higher, and people were more creative," says Joe Wiggins, who worked in the museum's education division for a decade. "In an organization where people are very creative and used to talking freely with one another, you can't put in a rigid structure and expect them to continue to do good work."

Adopting a more businesslike approach was crucial, counters longtime advertising manager Peggy Day, because a regional institution can't operate like a mom-and-pop place and remain successful. "When I came to the museum in 1985, we had a much smaller staff, and the demands on us were much fewer," she says. As Colorado's population has grown, "we've had to operate more like a business in order to sustain ourselves and to compete."

Besides competing with a growing number of cultural attractions, the museum is also vying for visitors with other leisure options -- including Denver's sports teams. "We want to be on top of their list," Days says, "and we're doing a lot more marketing now than we used to." That marketing includes billboards all around town advertising the museum.

The original plans for Space Odyssey were scaled back by economic realities.
The original plans for Space Odyssey were scaled back by economic realities.
The revised Space Odyssey plans.
The revised Space Odyssey plans.

Matthew Gargan, the museum's security captain, has witnessed a lot of changes during his three decades there. When the Phipps Auditorium was renovated in 1983 to house IMAX, a travel series that had been held in the auditorium was relocated to South High School, and church groups that had met in the space were displaced. People weren't happy about that, either. "Anytime things change, there's a certain percentage of growing pains you go through, and the growing pains we experienced [around IMAX] were beneficial to the museum," Gargan says. "The museum is constantly growing and changing. A museum that doesn't grow is a dead museum."

Some changes were more substantial -- and controversial -- than others.

"About a year after Raylene had been hired, she said, 'My philosophy is: If it ain't broke, break it,'" remembers Alan Espenlaub, a facility manager who left the museum last year after 28 years there -- thirteen of them on the senior management team. "That set a tenor."

When Decatur arrived at the museum, Edge of the Wild and Explore Colorado: From Plains to Peaks had already been renovated, and the bird hall was next in line. The old dioramas were going to be replaced with new environments that would show Colorado birds in their native habitat. The ornithology department was more than a year into the planning stage when the proposal was "pulled off the table without any formal announcement," Preston says.

About the same time, Bob Pickering was working on a huge project about bison that was going to involve every department in the museum. It was natural history at its purest, focusing on bison evolution and the 10,000-year relationship between man and beast on the Colorado plains. The exhibit was going to travel to museums across the country, and planning for the project was well under way.

But shortly after Decatur arrived, she announced that it wasn't the right exhibit for the museum, and all work on it ceased. "The investment of three years of time, money and effort went down the drain," Pickering says. "It became very clear that there would be reduced support for all activities other than space science."

According to Taylor, feasibility studies were conducted on both the bird hall and the bison exhibit, and "neither appealed to a broad audience of people."

Not only were the proposed bird and bison exhibits canceled, but an existing exhibit -- the Hall of Ancient People -- was closed, with no plans to reopen it. "Some artifacts from that hall will be incorporated into other museum exhibits in the future," Taylor says. (Exhibit halls that were closed during the west atrium renovation -- Australia and South Pacific Islands, North American Indian Cultures and South America -- will reopen next week; the Gems and Minerals hall has also been closed temporarily.)

"With limited resources, you can't really afford not to put dollars into things that have sizzle," Espenlaub says. "American museum philosophy today is to serve under-served audiences and not be content with the audiences you've always served. The trick is to attract new audiences without alienating the old."

Many employees feel the museum failed to strike that delicate balance, however. The shift in emphasis became even more apparent in 2000, when the museum celebrated its hundredth birthday and changed its name from Denver Museum of Natural History to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Although this wasn't the first time the museum had changed its name -- to acknowledge Denver's contributions, in 1948 the institution shifted from the Colorado Museum of Natural History to the Denver Museum of Natural History -- the identity switch upset many staffers.

"We've been called conservative because we wanted to stick to tradition, but I believe in capitalizing on tradition," says Tony Pfeiffer, former adult-programs manager at the museum.

"The fact that there was even going to be a name change was kept a secret from the staff," says another employee.

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