Ed Nichols just met with staff to announce that he is stepping down as CEO of History Colorado after eight years at the helm, during which time he oversaw the construction of the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway, in a state-of-the-art facility designed by David Tryba.
Also leaving is Kathryn Hill, the COO, who more than anyone else has been responsible for History Colorado’s greatest failure — the lackluster exhibition program. Armed with focus groups and demographics, Hill pushed to increasingly dumb-down the content of exhibits, both permanent and temporary, to reflect her ideal audience: fourth-graders. And though attendance figures first increased when the building was unveiled in 2012, the word is that now it sees fewer visitors than came to the old building — “The Typewriter," which was demolished and replaced by the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center.
A new, nine-member board appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper in accordance with legislation passed last session will determine an interim leadership plan in the coming weeks.
When History Colorado first opened in the new digs, I was outraged by the low quality of the exhibits, especially the overuse of replicas to stand-in for real historic material — which History Colorado already owns! So I came up with ideas for ten shows that should have opened the place, instead of the forgettable follies that did. More than three years later, those ideas still seem stronger than the abysmal Colorado Stories and Destination Colorado — so here they are again.
TEN SHOWS THE HISTORY COLORADO CENTER SHOULD HAVE OPENED WITH
10) The Rockies: Bierstadt to Christo
Our celebrity scenery has attracted artists since the Hudson River painters found the Rockies in the late 19th century. This show would explore that appeal through the decades and lead right up to contemporary artists and, of course, Christo, whose "Over the River" installation on the Arkansas River is scheduled to go up in 2015.
9) Rocky Flats: Or How I Learned to Hate the Bomb
Duck and cover while taking in this glimpse of atomic war mania in the 1950s and '60s. A selection of period items once in bomb factories and bomb shelters are showcased in the context of the superpower politics of the time. The environmental issues related to nu clear waste will be dealt with. There would also be a film festival with the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, Hiroshima Mon Amour, among other bomb-themed films being screened.
8) The First Coloradans: the Ancients of Mesa Verde
History Colorado has the largest collection in the world of Mesa Verde artifacts, photos and other materials. They include many pieces from Richard Wetherill, who first came upon the main ruins after hearing about them from the Ute Indians, who regarded them as sacred. History Colorado also owns the archives of famed photographer William Henry Jackson, who took the first photos of a stone dwelling in Mesa Verde in 1874.
7) Colorado, a Pioneer for Women's Suffrage
Though the Wyoming territory was admitted to the union in 1890 with voting rights for women already in place, Colorado became the first state to enfranchise women voters in 1893, 27 years before women had the vote nationally. The men and women who pushed Colorado ahead of the pack, and who are forgotten today, will all be brought back to life.
6) Mountain Time Mid-Century Modern
From Red Rocks Amphitheatre to the Air Force Academy Chapel to Arapahoe Acres to the "Sleeper" house, some of Colorado's most famous landmarks are mid-century modern. There are the triumphs and tragedies — the lost Zeckendorf Plaza, for example — from this highly regarded era. Kids will squeal with delight as they work their way through a half-scale model of a futuristic house, while their older siblings will be Tweeting their hearts out about this Mad Men-like extravaganza.
5) Mattachine to Mainstream: Gay in Colorado
By the 1930s, Capitol Hill was already known as a center of gay life in the region, and its population of gays and lesbians swelled in the late 1940s with recently-discharged service members after World War II. In 1959, the Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights group, held its national convention in Denver. The officers of the Denver chapter, notably artist Elver Barker, decided to hold the first-ever press conference and, in turn, the Mattachine Society was fairly treated in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. But a few weeks later, Denver police raided the homes of members, and many of their lives were ruined. And the issues continue today, as domestic partnership legislation rumbles through the Colorado Statehouse. It's been a wild ride.
4) Lowriders and High Profiles: Chicanos and Post-Chicanos in Colorado
Beginning in the earliest years of settlement, Hispanics have played a big role in Colorado's history — even when it was part of Mexico! There are the adobes of the southern part of the state — notably the remarkable Italianate Baca House in Trinidad — the penitents, Cesar Chavez, Mayor Federico Pena and the Mexican hamburger, arts, crafts, language and everything else. Even Denver International Airport's "Mustang" is part of the story. Especially fun for the kids is the trio of painted-up low-riders in the atrium with performances of their special features going on several times a day.
3) Colorado's Titanic: The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Molly Brown's life becomes the prism through which viewers are introduced to turn-of-the-century Denver, its people, its buildings, and its place in the American West. Of course, proper attention is given to her adventures on the Titanic, along with those of other locals who were on board, some of whom drowned. Tickets to the special panel discussion that will include Debbie Reynolds and Kathy Bates — each of whom played the remarkable character in the movies — are already sold out.
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2) I Guess I'd Rather Be in Colorado: A Century and a Half of Tourism and Recreation
Colorado's first tourist boom began with the railroads bringing people here from the East Coast and the Midwest. Some of the late 19th-century destinations — many of which are still popular — were the hot springs in Manitou Springs and Glenwood Springs, along with commercialized natural features like the Royal Gorge Bridge and the Cave of the Winds, and even the Pikes Peak Hill Climb that dates back to the very earliest days of automobile racing. Visitors also came to see places that were left unmolested, like the Garden of the Gods, as well as nationally protected landscapes like Mesa Verde and the Great Sand Dunes. The show culminates with the establishment of the ski towns that got off the ground in the 1930s and '40s and began to boom in the '60s.
1) Why Do You Think There's a U.S. Mint in Denver? The Rush for Gold and Silver
This show is about the role of mining in establishing the wealth of Colorado and in shaping its development. Denver owes its founding to the mining fortunes made and lost in the mountains, and this show would examine the miners and madams, the ministers and schoolmarms. The rebirth of mining towns as gambling ones provides a lot of irony, as that success has overwhelmed their history. Bus tours to mining towns and a ride on the Georgetown Loop are just two of many events that could be tied to this blockbuster.
Editor's note: Christo's "Over the River" has not yet appeared, and same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. But otherwise, Michael Paglia's three-year-old suggestions provide an ideal starting point for the next chapter of History Colorado.