A Spaced Odyssey
Clay Sisk

A Spaced Odyssey

Next week is going to be big for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. After seventeen months of renovation, the museum's new west atrium will open, with windows four stories high looking out onto City Park Lake, the downtown skyline and the breathtaking mountain vista beyond.

At 6:30 p.m. on September 26 -- just in time to watch the sun set -- socialites, athletes, television personalities and anyone else who wants to pay $125 for the privilege will start arriving at the museum for a sneak peak at the atrium, which opens to the general public the next day. As guests arrive, they'll have their photos snapped by museum staffers dressed like paparazzi in "gangster-looking" trench coats and fedoras. Once inside, they'll be ushered to the rooftop deck, where they'll behold the 200-mile panoramic view spanning from Longs Peak to Pikes Peak and enjoy cocktails and dinner, accompanied by a string octet and a swing band.

The well-heeled patrons at the black-tie event are unlikely to detect the problems that lie behind the stunning new facade. But there are definitely cracks, say critics both inside and outside the museum.

In an effort to ensure that it not only remains relevant but attracts new audiences, in recent years the museum has veered away from natural history in order to focus on other areas of science -- particularly space science.

"We're a diverse organization with six different core competencies -- space sciences, earth sciences, zoology, paleontology, anthropology and health sciences -- and there's always a healthy tension that exists between them," says DMNS programs vice president Richard Stucky. "You only have a certain amount of resources, and you must allocate them in the right direction. We made a decision virtually seven or eight years ago to move toward space sciences, and that meant we were not going to do certain things anymore."

Partly as a result of that shifting focus, though, the museum has lost more than a hundred employees over the last few years. And for those who remain, the coming year could be even more challenging.

Although the museum has enjoyed high attendance recently, the recession is starting to affect charitable contributions, and next year's budget is expected to be flat. That will intensify interest in moneymaking exhibits, and even more of the traditional natural-history projects could succumb after the sexy new Space Odyssey exhibit opens next June.

And even that exhibit will be a scaled-back version of the grand plan once touted by museum visionaries. The museum's hundred-year evolution has hit a plateau, and from here on out, only the strongest will survive.

In the late 1800s, a naturalist named Edwin Carter was living in Breckenridge and assembling an extensive collection of Colorado fauna. When a group of prominent citizens heard about the specimens Carter was displaying in his mountain cabin, they asked him if he'd agree to house the collection in a museum so that others could learn about the natural world.

Carter agreed, with one catch: He'd sell his collection as long as it was placed in a fireproof building and he was named curator for life. His patrons consented, but Carter died shortly thereafter. The idea of opening a museum lived on, however. Other Coloradans had assembled collections of butterflies and minerals, and by the turn of the last century, there was enough to justify building a museum.

On December 6, 1900, the Colorado Museum of Natural History was incorporated. Eight years later, the institution built on the highest hill in City Park opened to the public.

Over the next hundred years, the collections grew and grew again, and the museum expanded to accommodate them. New attractions were added, as well: a planetarium in 1968; an IMAX theater in 1983; and in 1985, the Hall of Life, a health-related exhibit that had been on display in the Denver Blue Cross/Blue Shield building. Board and staff members were constantly looking ahead, thinking of new ways to get visitors excited about science.

"Museums, especially natural-history museums, go through transitions, and that was something I was very excited about when I first came to the museum in 1990," says Charles Preston, who chaired the zoology department and was curator of ornithology during his more than eight years there. "A lot of people used to look at natural-history museums as mausoleums, and so what happened in the late 1960s and '70s is that a new genre of science centers began opening, but those centers began to be seen as theme parks."

The Denver Museum of Natural History, as it was then known, wanted to find a middle ground somewhere between stodgy purveyor of artifacts and Disney-esque funplex. "The museum was looking at how it wanted to position itself," Preston remembers.

One way to do that was to make exhibits more interactive.

"Clearly, by the early '90s, it became known that the two areas of most radical change would be in health and space," says current museum head Raylene Decatur. "We felt that the Hall of Life had given us a platform; that exhibit, I believe, led to a different set of thinking among the board and the staff."

The Hall of Life is a series of exhibits that engage all of a visitor's senses. Rather than simply read informative signs about health issues, people interact with the displays: They can measure their blood pressure and stress levels; they can test their sense of smell by picking up a phone receiver and choosing the scent that wafts through (chocolate, burning wood, pizza); they can sit in a phone booth and discover how well they identify sounds by selecting the photograph that matches the one they hear.

Museum staffers noticed that children and grownups alike were more interested in exhibits they could manipulate. So in 1995, when the museum relocated its renowned dinosaur collection to the new Prehistoric Journey exhibit, there was no question that it would include interactive components. "It's a very natural evolution for the museum," Decatur explains. "The entire world is moving toward interactivity."

Once Prehistoric Journey was complete, the museum started looking for its next big project.

In the meantime, it renovated some of its wildlife exhibits -- Edge of the Wild and Explore Colorado: From Plains to Peaks -- to make them more interactive. The resulting exhibits won awards from the American Association of Museums. "We were one of the two or three most successful museums in the country," Preston says. "Morale was at an all-time high."

"The institution was on the brink of breaking into the front ranks of natural-history museums," adds Bob Pickering, who chaired the anthropology department. A survey conducted a few years ago by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting determined that the museum had the highest name recognition of all cultural institutions in the six-county metro area. Audiences were wooed by spectacular exhibits focusing on the Aztecs and China, and the museum saw its attendance soar.

The idea of a space-science exhibit had bounced around for years, and it seemed like a logical move. After all, not only is space the next frontier, but with a large portion of the country's science industry based in Colorado, the potential for funding was excellent.

The space-science initiative finally found its champion in Decatur. She was deputy director of the Maryland Science Center when the Denver museum hired her in January 1995 to take over for John Welles, who retired as director in 1994.

"This museum has never been purely natural history," Decatur says. "If you look at natural history in the nineteenth century, they were interpreting the earth; now we're interpreting Earth's greater role in the universe."

Because of its limited infrastructure, a planetarium alone couldn't provide that interpretation. So the museum started exploring its options. Focus groups and surveys showed that space science was something the public wanted at the museum; market research also revealed that people were more interested in how science is conducted in space than the hardware that gets people there.

Over the next few years, the concept for a space project grew from a general idea to a specific one: The museum would devote approximately 40,000 square feet of existing museum property adjacent to the west atrium to a permanent exhibit called Space Odyssey. It would contain interactive displays that would leave visitors feeling as though they were traveling through space. And the old planetarium would be upgraded to match the high-tech features of Space Odyssey.

"When Space Odyssey was first conceived, there was a lot of enthusiasm to think outside the box and create a state-of-the-art, highly interactive exhibit," says a current museum employee. "Everyone was intoxicated by the idea."

But other changes at the museum were sobering.

After Decatur took over, the feel of the place changed drastically. The museum took on a more corporate atmosphere. Employees had to answer to a strict chain of command, and that alienated many of the scientists accustomed to working in a laid-back environment.

The board even changed Decatur's title from Director to President and CEO "to reflect the current practices of the museum," according to the museum's spokeswoman.

"This building was made one-third larger through additions in the '90s, and the institution went up not only in size, but in professionalism," Decatur explains. "When an organization grows, it changes the relationships people have with each other."

One of those relationships was with a museum club called the Friends of Anthropology. Up until three years ago, the club's 150 members held monthly meetings at the museum and raised money for the anthropology department through membership dues. "They were moving from being the loving neighborhood museum to becoming corporate," says Tony Baker, a past president of the group. "They wanted us to submit a budget to them! We were volunteers; why should we create a budget when we weren't getting paid?

"They created an environment that made it difficult to continue holding these meetings, and the volunteers didn't feel like banging their heads against the wall anymore, so we just finally gave up."

Another club called the Friends of Earth Sciences also disbanded.

According to museum spokeswoman Julia Taylor, the two groups had been "created to inform the public about research activities. Now we educate the public with newsletters and a more proactive press strategy within the museum."

Complaints about changes in workplace culture may seem petty, but employees say the changes affected their work adversely. "Before Raylene came, there were fewer meetings, productivity was higher, and people were more creative," says Joe Wiggins, who worked in the museum's education division for a decade. "In an organization where people are very creative and used to talking freely with one another, you can't put in a rigid structure and expect them to continue to do good work."

Adopting a more businesslike approach was crucial, counters longtime advertising manager Peggy Day, because a regional institution can't operate like a mom-and-pop place and remain successful. "When I came to the museum in 1985, we had a much smaller staff, and the demands on us were much fewer," she says. As Colorado's population has grown, "we've had to operate more like a business in order to sustain ourselves and to compete."

Besides competing with a growing number of cultural attractions, the museum is also vying for visitors with other leisure options -- including Denver's sports teams. "We want to be on top of their list," Days says, "and we're doing a lot more marketing now than we used to." That marketing includes billboards all around town advertising the museum.

Matthew Gargan, the museum's security captain, has witnessed a lot of changes during his three decades there. When the Phipps Auditorium was renovated in 1983 to house IMAX, a travel series that had been held in the auditorium was relocated to South High School, and church groups that had met in the space were displaced. People weren't happy about that, either. "Anytime things change, there's a certain percentage of growing pains you go through, and the growing pains we experienced [around IMAX] were beneficial to the museum," Gargan says. "The museum is constantly growing and changing. A museum that doesn't grow is a dead museum."

Some changes were more substantial -- and controversial -- than others.

"About a year after Raylene had been hired, she said, 'My philosophy is: If it ain't broke, break it,'" remembers Alan Espenlaub, a facility manager who left the museum last year after 28 years there -- thirteen of them on the senior management team. "That set a tenor."

When Decatur arrived at the museum, Edge of the Wild and Explore Colorado: From Plains to Peaks had already been renovated, and the bird hall was next in line. The old dioramas were going to be replaced with new environments that would show Colorado birds in their native habitat. The ornithology department was more than a year into the planning stage when the proposal was "pulled off the table without any formal announcement," Preston says.

About the same time, Bob Pickering was working on a huge project about bison that was going to involve every department in the museum. It was natural history at its purest, focusing on bison evolution and the 10,000-year relationship between man and beast on the Colorado plains. The exhibit was going to travel to museums across the country, and planning for the project was well under way.

But shortly after Decatur arrived, she announced that it wasn't the right exhibit for the museum, and all work on it ceased. "The investment of three years of time, money and effort went down the drain," Pickering says. "It became very clear that there would be reduced support for all activities other than space science."

According to Taylor, feasibility studies were conducted on both the bird hall and the bison exhibit, and "neither appealed to a broad audience of people."

Not only were the proposed bird and bison exhibits canceled, but an existing exhibit -- the Hall of Ancient People -- was closed, with no plans to reopen it. "Some artifacts from that hall will be incorporated into other museum exhibits in the future," Taylor says. (Exhibit halls that were closed during the west atrium renovation -- Australia and South Pacific Islands, North American Indian Cultures and South America -- will reopen next week; the Gems and Minerals hall has also been closed temporarily.)

"With limited resources, you can't really afford not to put dollars into things that have sizzle," Espenlaub says. "American museum philosophy today is to serve under-served audiences and not be content with the audiences you've always served. The trick is to attract new audiences without alienating the old."

Many employees feel the museum failed to strike that delicate balance, however. The shift in emphasis became even more apparent in 2000, when the museum celebrated its hundredth birthday and changed its name from Denver Museum of Natural History to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Although this wasn't the first time the museum had changed its name -- to acknowledge Denver's contributions, in 1948 the institution shifted from the Colorado Museum of Natural History to the Denver Museum of Natural History -- the identity switch upset many staffers.

"We've been called conservative because we wanted to stick to tradition, but I believe in capitalizing on tradition," says Tony Pfeiffer, former adult-programs manager at the museum.

"The fact that there was even going to be a name change was kept a secret from the staff," says another employee.

But according to Stucky, the switch was no secret. "The decision to change the name goes back a long way," he explains. "There had always been discussions about whether to change the name and how to incorporate science into it. There was a roundtable in the early '90s where staff and trustees talked about it. The ideas were fleshed out among trustees and staff, but ultimately it was a board decision.

"I was one of the strongest advocates for changing the name," he continues. "The words 'Nature' and 'Science' were key to me, because those words better conveyed what we do. If you go back to 1900, when the museum was founded, we had science in our charter. We follow the Aristotelian view of what a natural-history museum should be, which is that the universe has always been an important part of natural history. It's absolutely critical for us to have a space science exhibit, because planet Earth is going to be the only spaceship we'll be traveling on for a long time."

For many staffers, though, the name change was less troubling than the idea that natural-history projects were being sacrificed for an initiative that wasn't clearly defined.

"There was no reason not to want Space Odyssey; I think everyone was enthusiastic about it at first," Pfeiffer says. "We had debriefings on Space Odyssey for two years. They always presented the concept, but there was never any flesh on the bones, and yet the bones kept being brought out as if we were supposed to rally around them. Well, that's okay for the first three meetings, but then you need to add something to get people excited.

"The whole idea was that Space Odyssey wouldn't just consist of pictures of Mars, but that it would be an experience," Pfeiffer continues. "Well, what would that experience be? Would people walk off a plank and become weightless? Would we put visitors inside something and accelerate them to G-force so they could feel what it's like to be in space? Those questions were never answered."

"All we knew was that there was going to be a space science initiative, but no one knew exactly what it would be, how big it would be or what form it would take," adds Preston. "If you're going to do something that big and exciting, then you'd better have a good reason to do it -- and maybe there was, but it was never communicated to us.

"It's not unusual for a museum to change course, but it should have been explained better; the rationale just wasn't there," he says. "People didn't know why things were being cut. The idea of adding more space science was exciting, but we wanted to know how it fit in with the vision. At one point I asked what our vision was, and I never got an answer. Either I needed to be free to create a vision, or I needed to follow someone else's clear vision, so I decided to seek opportunities elsewhere."

Preston went on to become the founding curator of the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.

Stucky, a staunch proponent of Space Odyssey, says he can see why his colleagues became confused: "We communicated things over and over about what Space Odyssey was going to be, but communication doesn't always result in clarity of understanding."

And even after many of the questions regarding Space Odyssey were answered, not everyone was excited about the prospects.

"I didn't see how it related to natural history or how it fit in with the mission of the museum. I was very concerned that with so many challenges with the natural history of earth, an institution like the DMNS would choose to focus so much energy on planets other than this one," says Frank Hein, who started out as a field biologist and worked his way up to curatorial assistant in the zoology department. "It's a fine idea for a space organization. It's also fine on a small scale at a natural-history museum, in the context of a planetarium.

"The real problem with Space Odyssey is the scale. It was usurping progress we were making in other areas. It felt to me and my department that we were being asked to go on neutral for five or six years," Hein continues. "What upset me the most is that we told [upper managers] again and again that so much emphasis on space is a bad idea and that it is inconsistent with our mission. The biggest cost to the public is the opportunity cost of what isn't happening. Like a revised bird hall that would have been really compelling; all of the things we would have, could have done to connect people and nature."

Trustee emeritus Bruce Dines, who served on the board for 25 years, thinks space education is an important thing for the museum to provide, but he offers a cautionary note: "They've provided wonderful exhibits, and all those great dioramas never should be changed. I hope the education department there will not end up taking them away and replacing them with something more current."

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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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."

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.

Whether people like the institution's direction or not, it's an undeniably exciting time for the museum -- and not just because of Space Odyssey. In October, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, which was recovered from the ocean after having been lost for 38 years, will go on display. Next year, the museum will introduce a Jane Goodall exhibit, a Jane Goodall IMAX film and Jane Goodall herself. In May, a new parking garage will make it easier for visitors to see all the new exhibits. The following year, the museum will bring in exhibits on Machu Picchu and Egypt. And in 2005, a touring Lewis and Clark exhibit will stop in Denver.

"I'm a paleontologist by training, and I look at long periods of time -- usually in the past," says Stucky. "But I can also look ahead to long periods in the future. If I were in the year 2050 looking back on today, I'd see that we've built a new facade and a new parking garage, we've shifted to digital technology, and we've established nature and science as a critical way of understanding the universe. It's always difficult to move through times of change, but the museum is in one of the most exciting times in its history."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >