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Back to Nature

Last Thursday, museum directors from across the country descended on Golden for a conference hosted by the Mountain-Plains Museums Association, and after a long day of meetings and workshops, a couple dozen conferees ambled into the Denver Sheraton West's lounge for some refreshment.

Once the beer started flowing, so did the opinions. The museophiles lambasted the founders of Colorado's Ocean Journey for trying to run an aquarium in this landlocked state, then tackled the subject of how to keep museums relevant in an overstimulated world. "It's always easier to bring in something new than to keep or fix what we already have," said a museum head from Kansas. "That's always a struggle."

Especially if you're the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, an institution that current and former employees say is moving away from natural history and trying to woo visitors with the interactive new Space Odyssey exhibit. The museum has lost a lot of institutional knowledge as a result, with more than a hundred employees leaving over the past four years ("A Spaced Odyssey," September 19, 2002).

Space Odyssey has attracted more than 250,000 visitors since it opened on June 13, but other departments have suffered for its success. "S.O. is more labor-intensive than our more traditional exhibits and is not a source of revenue for other programs," museum officials wrote in an internal budget memo last year. "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."

In recent weeks, nine full-time employees have been laid off, and five more were asked to go to part-time. Many of those people held traditional natural-history positions or worked in the museum's program division, which includes the zoology and anthropology departments. For example, the mammalogy curator's job will be abolished in January, and the curator of geology and the assistant preparator in the earth sciences department were told that they could either become half-time employees or retire. The photo archivist and the curator of ethnology were given the same choice. Because of such changes, a Boulder man with an extensive gem collection is no longer planning to donate his specimens to the museum.

DMNS spokeswoman Julia Taylor blames the layoffs on the soft economy and the resulting decline in sales-tax revenue from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. "The program division took the hardest hit, because that's what the SCFD funds," she says. Over the past two years, the museum's SCFD intake dropped by $1 million, and these cuts are making up for it.

"I think the museum has taken a philosophical shift," says a laid-off employee who asked not to be named, citing a non-disparagement clause that all terminated workers were made to sign. "They eliminated all school classroom teaching positions and will now only deliver education on the floor of the galleries beginning in January. That's a huge shift in philosophy that says they're beginning to use the model of a science center."

Taylor explains that the new educational model benefits students, who will no longer have to pay an extra fee for behind-the-scenes instruction, something that made that part of the museum experience inaccessible to many cash-strapped schools in the past. "This will serve school groups better because it will be cheaper, and students will be able to see more and interact more with people," Taylor says.

In an era when all museums are struggling, it's not surprising that officials have had to make tough choices, but DMNS employees say new projects shouldn't debut at the expense of traditional ones. "They're bleeding financially, and so they're trying to make programs pay for themselves," says the former employee. "They blame it on the fact that SCFD funding is down. That's partly true, but they're not being completely honest. The annual operating budget of Space Odyssey is now part of the museum's general budget, so where is that money coming from? It's coming from the cuts of other programs."

 
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