A Spaced Odyssey

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

But according to Stucky, the switch was no secret. "The decision to change the name goes back a long way," he explains. "There had always been discussions about whether to change the name and how to incorporate science into it. There was a roundtable in the early '90s where staff and trustees talked about it. The ideas were fleshed out among trustees and staff, but ultimately it was a board decision.

"I was one of the strongest advocates for changing the name," he continues. "The words 'Nature' and 'Science' were key to me, because those words better conveyed what we do. If you go back to 1900, when the museum was founded, we had science in our charter. We follow the Aristotelian view of what a natural-history museum should be, which is that the universe has always been an important part of natural history. It's absolutely critical for us to have a space science exhibit, because planet Earth is going to be the only spaceship we'll be traveling on for a long time."

For many staffers, though, the name change was less troubling than the idea that natural-history projects were being sacrificed for an initiative that wasn't clearly defined.

Space case: The museum’s focus on space convinced Charles Preston and Bob Pickering (right) to move on.
Sean Campbell
Space case: The museum’s focus on space convinced Charles Preston and Bob Pickering (right) to move on.

"There was no reason not to want Space Odyssey; I think everyone was enthusiastic about it at first," Pfeiffer says. "We had debriefings on Space Odyssey for two years. They always presented the concept, but there was never any flesh on the bones, and yet the bones kept being brought out as if we were supposed to rally around them. Well, that's okay for the first three meetings, but then you need to add something to get people excited.

"The whole idea was that Space Odyssey wouldn't just consist of pictures of Mars, but that it would be an experience," Pfeiffer continues. "Well, what would that experience be? Would people walk off a plank and become weightless? Would we put visitors inside something and accelerate them to G-force so they could feel what it's like to be in space? Those questions were never answered."

"All we knew was that there was going to be a space science initiative, but no one knew exactly what it would be, how big it would be or what form it would take," adds Preston. "If you're going to do something that big and exciting, then you'd better have a good reason to do it -- and maybe there was, but it was never communicated to us.

"It's not unusual for a museum to change course, but it should have been explained better; the rationale just wasn't there," he says. "People didn't know why things were being cut. The idea of adding more space science was exciting, but we wanted to know how it fit in with the vision. At one point I asked what our vision was, and I never got an answer. Either I needed to be free to create a vision, or I needed to follow someone else's clear vision, so I decided to seek opportunities elsewhere."

Preston went on to become the founding curator of the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.

Stucky, a staunch proponent of Space Odyssey, says he can see why his colleagues became confused: "We communicated things over and over about what Space Odyssey was going to be, but communication doesn't always result in clarity of understanding."

And even after many of the questions regarding Space Odyssey were answered, not everyone was excited about the prospects.

"I didn't see how it related to natural history or how it fit in with the mission of the museum. I was very concerned that with so many challenges with the natural history of earth, an institution like the DMNS would choose to focus so much energy on planets other than this one," says Frank Hein, who started out as a field biologist and worked his way up to curatorial assistant in the zoology department. "It's a fine idea for a space organization. It's also fine on a small scale at a natural-history museum, in the context of a planetarium.

"The real problem with Space Odyssey is the scale. It was usurping progress we were making in other areas. It felt to me and my department that we were being asked to go on neutral for five or six years," Hein continues. "What upset me the most is that we told [upper managers] again and again that so much emphasis on space is a bad idea and that it is inconsistent with our mission. The biggest cost to the public is the opportunity cost of what isn't happening. Like a revised bird hall that would have been really compelling; all of the things we would have, could have done to connect people and nature."

Trustee emeritus Bruce Dines, who served on the board for 25 years, thinks space education is an important thing for the museum to provide, but he offers a cautionary note: "They've provided wonderful exhibits, and all those great dioramas never should be changed. I hope the education department there will not end up taking them away and replacing them with something more current."

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