A Spaced Odyssey

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

So far, only one diorama has been removed -- and that was because its depiction of wildlife on the Brazilian savanna wasn't scientifically accurate. According to former facility manager Espenlaub, it included animals that didn't naturally interact with one another.

But there's another endangered species at the museum: money. The museum experienced phenomenal economic growth over the past few years, with revenue jumping from $23.5 million in 1999 to $33.4 million last year (although much of that increase includes money raised for Space Odyssey). The outlook is bleak for next year, though.

The museum is drawing up its budget for next year, and according to a list of recent budget assumptions obtained by Westword, "2003 will be a challenging year, both in terms of activities and finances. Overall, revenue for 2003 is expected to be flat with 2002. The starting point for budgeting is no growth.... SCFD revenue is projected to be the same as 2002, which is $600,000 less than the previous two years.

Clay Sisk
Former facility manager Alan Espenlaub left the museum after 28 years.
James Bludworth
Former facility manager Alan Espenlaub left the museum after 28 years.

"SO opens mid-2003 and is expected to drive attendance," the budget memo continues. "SO is more labor-intensive than our more traditional exhibits and is not a source of revenue for other programs."

That's bad news for programs and people not directly related to Space Odyssey. "Before starting your budgeting, please be sure you understand the direction for your department," the budget memo instructs. "The museum is a living organism in an economic sense. There are areas where growth is occurring, such as Space Odyssey. There will be other areas that are either shrinking in size and emphasis or going away."

Space is an area of growth at the museum -- but even Space Odyssey has been scaled back from the original plans.

The museum had two designs for the project: Scenario A and Scenario B. The first scenario cost more than the second, and museum staffers focused on it because the driving concept behind Space Odyssey was to give visitors the experience of traveling through space. Scenario A consisted of five exhibit areas that would take them on that trip.

Visitors would begin their journey through space at Fragile Blue Planet, which was later renamed Earth Plaza; in this exhibit, people would feel as though they were viewing Earth from orbit. "As they enter the Fragile Blue Planet gallery, visitors encounter a very large, animated image of Earth that appears to float in space above a reflecting pool. The image is created by rear-screen video projection onto a hemispheric screen, which is mounted against a black background," reads a March 2001 description of the exhibits. "This contemplative display sets the tone for the Fragile Blue Planet gallery and for all of Space Odyssey."

After exiting the Earth exhibit, people could choose which of the four other halls to visit next. In Planet Outpost, visitors would have the experience of being on a manned mission to Mars. The centerpiece of the exhibit was to be a huge diorama that would simulate the Red Planet; there would also be someone outfitted as an astronaut, a surface-exploration vehicle and a digitally projected probe that visitors could pilot, as well as numerous other interactive displays.

In the Astronaut Training Center, visitors would "experience lower gravitational forces, encounter some of the unique challenges astronauts face and get to try their hands on some of the technologies that have trained NASA astronauts," the description continued. The main feature in that hall was to be a space station modeled after NASA's training facility at the Johnson Space Center, "which houses elaborate mock-ups of the space shuttle, [International Space Station] and other space vehicles."

The Space Activity Center would be a multi-purpose area available for classes and other programs, as well as video viewing. The other large exploration area was going to be called Milky Way Avenue, and it would contain several different displays. In addition, there was going to be a passive exhibit area called Deep Space Lounge.

"The original idea was that you'd take a trip through space," says a current museum employee. "Now what we have is a mishmash of whatever could be fit into the budget. There are going to be a lot of questions when it opens. People will see a beautifully renovated building with very little in it. The only part of Space Odyssey that's on track and on budget is the new planetarium."

Delphi Productions, a California-based design firm, was hired in early fall 2000 to help produce the exhibits. At Decatur's direction, staffers say, Delphi and museum employees who work on Space Odyssey began developing Scenario A. Between fall 2000 and fall 2001, work on the exhibit progressed rapidly, and money didn't seem to be an issue. "No cap was put on the budget," recalls one employee. "We just knew it was going to cost up to $60 million."

But late last fall, when boardmembers met to discuss the 2002 budget and saw what it would cost to produce the exhibits in Scenario A, they realized they couldn't raise enough money to include all of those features.

"What started out as a 40,000-square-foot project was suddenly scaled back to 20,000 square feet," says another employee. "We've cut the scope of the exhibit development by $8 million."

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