A Spaced Odyssey

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

With any big project, plans change over time until the best elements remain, responds Vincent Wolfe, project director for Space Odyssey.

In current plans, the introductory Earth Plaza exhibit has been eliminated, and the Space Activity Center has been relocated to the planetarium; in their place will be two huge, empty rooms that will be used for storage. The Astronaut Training Center has been cut, as have Planet Outpost and Milky Way Avenue. The giant Mars diorama remains, however, as do some of the displays originally intended for Planet Outpost. But Deep Space Lounge has been eliminated, and instead of Milky Way Avenue, there will be a large, open exhibit space called Discovery Area.

"The mistake was proceeding at that [Scenario A] level before getting confirmation from the board that the capital campaign would need to be capped at a certain level," says a museum employee.

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.

"They wasted a lot of time and money designing and redesigning the exhibit space," adds Joe Wiggins, who was part of Space Odyssey's original development team.

The project has now been capped at $50 million, which includes the atrium project. The museum still needs to raise $8.6 million to cover that amount.

"Scoping of all major projects, like Space Odyssey, gets to a point where grand vision must match reality of overall resources," explains museum spokeswoman Taylor. "During the development of the Prehistoric Journey exhibition, the same thing happened. For Space Odyssey, there came a point that the project was adjusted to accommodate resources. We believe that the refining of the exhibition actually resulted in a much more visitor-focused exhibition."

The museum won't release many specifics on what Space Odyssey will include until closer to opening, but just this week, it announced that one of the new exhibits will be a six-foot-tall Martian dust devil. The display, which will be one of the first things visitors see when they enter Space Odyssey, was made possible by a $100,000 donation from the U.S. Bancorp Foundation. Visitors will be able to change the size of the dust devil by moving a fan.

Space Oddysey will also contain a major "live programming element," Wolfe says. Museum volunteers will act out space-related scenarios on stage and do "street theater" performances on the floor. The first play will focus on what it's like to live in space.

Employees are less concerned with the performance piece of the project than with the actual exhibits. "Investing too heavily in technology can be risky," Frank Hein says. "Two years from now, what's really cool today is going to be outdated."

"The exhibits were originally supposed to be updateable, but now there's no money budgeted for future changes," adds a current employee. "I don't see them getting repeat visitors."

Wolfe denies that will be a problem. "We eliminated areas dedicated to one specific function so that it can be updated easily," he explains, pointing to the deep-sixing of Deep Space Lounge. Instead of devoting so much room to a sitting area, the museum will spend its resources on more versatile exhibits, such as those featuring digital images downloaded from NASA. "There will be so much there that you won't be able to absorb it all during your first visit," he adds. "If people want to track rovers on the surface of Mars or see a satellite launch in real time, we'll have the feeds to do that."

Taylor says the exhibit's long-range operating plan includes funds for upgrading the technology.

In January, Space Odyssey's operating costs will be absorbed into the museum's general operating budget, and that also has employees worried. "That's an additional $1.5 to $2 million a year, which is entirely dependent on the number of visitors who come to see Space Odyssey," notes one employee.

Staffers wonder whether ticket sales, gift-shop proceeds and catering and rental revenues from special events will be enough to cover the costs. "The museum's operating budget is about $20 million a year," the employee points out. "Either it goes up $2 million or that money gets skimmed off the rest of the museum."

Longtime museum trustee Sondra Talley says she understands employees' reticence regarding Space Odyssey. "There are peaks and valleys when new programs come in and change," she says. "But to me, it's the most exciting place we have in our community, and I'm a firm believer that moving into space sciences is another frontier we need to address, just like we did with the Hall of Life and bringing in information on Egypt and the Aztecs and the nomads."

For a lot of people at the museum, however, change has not been good. Since September 1999, at least 116 employees have left the museum, according to Wiggins, who came up with that number by going through phone lists dating back three years. Those 116 people included key museum staffers, such as program developers, curators, exhibit developers and researchers. The figure does not include non-salaried support positions such as reservation staff, food-service employees and maintenance workers.

"The turnover has really cut into productivity," Wiggins adds, explaining that managers must spend a lot of time training new people.

At any one time, the museum has up to 248 salaried positions -- which translates to a turnover of about 39 employees a year, or 15 percent.

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