History Colorado Board Wants to Prevent Museum From Becoming History

History Colorado Center.
History Colorado Center.
Tryba Associates

The ongoing efforts to push History Colorado into the future would make a great subject for a Ph.D. thesis someday. There’s certainly plenty of research material, including minutes of the meetings of the new board that was reduced to nine members by a law passed by the Colorado Legislature this year. And don’t forget all those Facebook comments (because the Internet won’t) posted by former staffers, including some of the eleven employees who took voluntary retirement this summer, a group that included the head of History Colorado and the state historian. Another eleven were laid off late last month, when six more full-time employees were reduced to half-time.

But as interim co-director Steve Turner, vice president of History Colorado’s preservation programs, pointed out at the October 15 board meeting, “We still have a hundred people on staff” at both the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway and the state’s regional museums. Turner recently met with directors of all of the center’s “stronger and leaner” divisions to go over a list of the things they must do (in accordance with laws and other agreements), as well as the things they want to do (in accordance with their mission and personal goals). And even with the smaller staff, Turner told the board, “Everybody believes all the things we have to do and should do can be accomplished.”

One major accomplishment: The cuts made by the new board have already reduced the projected deficit for fiscal 2016 that was pegged at $2 million back in March, a projection that propelled reorganization efforts and a goal of cutting the $15 million budget by $3 million — to ensure that History Colorado did not become history itself.  “With all the changes we’ve made, we sit here and think we’ll lose $800,000,” said Bob Musgraves, the boardmember who now serves with Turner as interim co-director. And the year after that is looking break-even. “This is pretty conservative,” Musgraves added, noting that earned revenue was left flat — which is definitely not the goal of these boardmembers.

They’re already planning ways to bring back the audiences who were turned off by the switch from the old Colorado History Museum to the snappy new History Colorado Center, or visited the $130 million building that opened in April 2012 only to decide there wasn’t much reason to return, since the state's sizable collection was nowhere in sight. For starters, they’re going to draw from that collection for a pop-up exhibit for the holidays, one featuring Kit Carson’s jacket, maybe old seats from the original Broncos stadium. And “the governor loves Alfred Packer’s pistol,” one member reminded the board. The exhibit could even travel to regional museums, and in the meantime, Turner and Musgraves are reaching out to those facilities, which were deemed in dire need of attention by the American Alliance of Museums back in March 2013, when it tabled History Colorado’s application for accreditation. (It came through the next year.)

But apart from some quick triage that will bring History Colorado's collection to the public's attention, the board agreed that exhibit decisions will be left to the staff, which will work with a not-yet-named advisory council established by the same law that reconfigured the board, as well as the new state historian. And there’s movement there: Board chair Ann Pritzlaff confirmed that discussions are continuing with Patty Limerick, the University of Colorado professor who won a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a “genius grant” — a decade ago and is head of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado. Conveniently, both CU and History Colorado fall under the Colorado Department of Higher Education, and Limerick would remain at the Center for the American West even while acting as a consultant to History Colorado. “The opportunity to collaborate is exciting,” says Pritzlaff. “Patty’s energy is electric.”

That deal may be done by the next History Colorado board meeting, set for Thursday, October 29, at the History Colorado Center. Forward into the past!

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