A Spaced Odyssey

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

That's below average compared with other employers, says Taylor, citing statistics compiled by the Mountain States Employers Council that show a 19.7 percent turnover rate for salaried employees in the metro area last year (9 percent of those people were laid off, while 13 percent chose to leave). And at area nonprofits, the turnover rate was 20.8 percent among salaried workers in 2001.

Of the people who left the museum, Taylor says, 25 percent did so "because they were under term contracts and/or performance-related concerns and/or lack of fit with the vision and direction of the museum." Seventy-five percent of employees left "for better opportunities or life-balance issues."

"That's not true," responds a current employee. "The majority of people left because they weren't happy."

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.

The emphasis on Space Odyssey and the subsequent neglect of other departments "took away the momentum there and devalued the staff," Pickering says. "One response was to sit tight and only do those things that didn't require a great deal of economic support; the other was to leave."

In 1999, after eight years at the museum, Pickering chose to do the latter. He's now deputy director for collections and education at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. "Before I left, there was an average of two resignations a week. One week there were seven resignations," he remembers. "There have been a lot of ironic similarities between the DMNS and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and we've faced some of the same problems, but the outcomes have been very different.

"We're adding an addition and talking about a name change. The difference here is that there's more of a can-do attitude and the entire staff is involved. One of the ironies is that now that I'm an administrator, would I go through the same staff loss? The answer has been 'No.' When people leave here, we get applications from the inside, because this is a good place to work."

Frank Hein left the museum in 1998, after five years there; he's now a program manager at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. "I'd still be there if it weren't for the space science initiative," he says. "I loved it there, as did most of the people who left."

As word spreads about the morale problems, it may become harder for the museum to attract top people -- and harder for remaining employees and new, less experienced workers to do the work. "When I first came to the museum, there was no turnover -- people's grandchildren ended up working there," Espenlaub recalls. "Turnover can be good for an institution, but not this much turnover. You don't notice its effects until you need to turn to Joe and say, 'Hey, Joe, how did we put together that exhibit we did two years ago?' and Joe's not there anymore, and neither is anyone else who was there two years ago."

Turnover can also lead to fewer program offerings, as well as less variety. "When new programs aren't being produced because there are fewer people, you tend to reproduce what you've done in the past," Wiggins says.

In an effort to boost morale, Decatur started holding teas for staff members. Each month, employees from different departments were selected at random to come to the administrative boardroom where the teas were held. The idea was that staffers would get an opportunity to raise issues of concern, but the attempt at polite interaction was a failure. Employees found the gatherings to be forced and patronizing.

"What would happen was Raylene would choose the topics and they turned out to be monologues," says Pfeiffer. "One topic was the new parking lot. She brought up things that were of concern to her, not us. If the idea was to fraternize with the troops, she should have listened to the troops."

Word of employee dissatisfaction eventually made its way to the board of trustees. Prior to a senior staff retreat in May 2001, the museum sent surveys to certain staff members, asking them to rate the institution. The completed surveys pointed to major concerns about leadership, communication and morale issues, employees say, and prompted the board to suggest forming a human-relations committee to help solve the issues. "It's now 2002, and we haven't heard a thing since," one staffer notes.

Although the teas have been canceled, this past February the museum's upper management made another attempt to soothe the staff. Attendance figures for 2001 had just been tallied and showed a 2 percent increase over 2000. To thank employees for making 2001 such a good year, senior managers decided to deliver cookies to everyone.

But those managers were so disconnected from their underlings, one employee recalls, that "they didn't even know where everyone worked, so they had to ask people in the mailroom to give them maps." The managers had set aside only one hour to make their way through the 500,000-square-foot museum.

Some people never got their cookies.

The future home of Space Odyssey is just a concrete-and-metal skeleton right now -- an empty expanse of beams, air ducts, pipes and wires.

Nine months from now, the museum's most technologically sophisticated exhibit ever will debut in the oldest portion of the museum. The space, which once housed the dinosaur hall, still contains remnants from other chapters in the museum's evolution: On one wall, some of the painted foliage that might have provided the backdrop for a brontosaurus exhibit is visible, while the ceiling, which will be restored in time for Space Odyssey's opening, dates back to 1908.

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