Storytelling has long been a popular activity in Denver, with the Narrators and Stories on Stage drawing crowds for more than a decade — and lately, more organizations have been getting in on the act. This year, the City of Denver set up its own storytelling department, I Am Denver, staffed by “chief storyteller” Rowena Alegria and three others; it’s been hosting events around town and adding to the archive of stories about local individuals and institutions at denvergov.org.
But the real story starts October 19 at History Colorado: What’s Your Story?, an interactive exhibit that introduces you to 101 Coloradans and shows such artifacts as an 1894 letter from women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony celebrating Colorado giving the vote to women, 25 years before the national adoption of the 19th amendment; Dana Crawford’s model for the renovation of a block of Larimer Street into Larimer Square; and 75 posters dating from the founding of Denver to today. What’s Your Story? was two years in the making, as staffers and boardmembers alike discussed what it should contain. “I’ve never given a million dollars and had a board argue with me before,” said Ryan Heckman, chair of CiviCO, which helped fund the project, at a kickoff event.
But then, maybe they were just showing off their superpowers. An electronic quiz at the start of What's Your Story? will allow you to determine your own, too. That's just one of the multimedia innovations designed to draw Coloradans into the exhibit.
“What’s Your Story? empowers visitors to see themselves alongside generations of Coloradans who have made an impact in communities throughout the state and across the nation,” says Julie Peterson, public historian and exhibit developer. “Visitors will connect with others — from engineers to social justice advocates, from outdoor enthusiasts to public servants — who care about the same things that they do, and maybe share their superpower.”
But it took a super effort to get to that point. "It was a long evolution," admits Peterson. "We really designed it with teenagers in mind. We really wanted history to come alive for that group."
And someone just out of that target group helped focus the mission, when an intern said that the best question he'd been asked in an interview was this: "What is your superpower?"
"That was core to the development process," says Peterson. Working with a Boston exhibit company, History Colorado came up with different character traits relevant to being a leader (What's Your Story? is the debut exhibit in the new Owens Hickenlooper Leadership Gallery), drawing from research done by other museums and also working with a team of youth development/advisors who helped keep the conversation fresh. That crew pointed out that "grit" was an overused term, Peterson recalls; instead, that passé superpower morphed into "resilience."
The superpower quiz is at the start of the show, which includes three other major media pieces: a video that shows how generations of Coloradans have made an impact; a showstopper at the back with three giant screens, where visitors can have their photos taken and make a statement about what they care about, which is then added to the collection; and those posters, which date from 1860 to today. "I actually collected a poster from the climate strike that's at the end of the exhibit," says Peterson.
There are also two kiosks where people can make their own posters, then display them, email them or share them on social media.
Want to guess your superpower? Here's History Colorado's description of the possibilities:
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Courage: Your bravery in challenging situations helps you face fears. You can be counted on to push through, even when things are difficult or scary. Creativity: Your imagination drives you to make new things. You see the world in a unique way and turn ideas into action. Curiosity: Your open mind gains valuable knowledge from every experience and encounter. To learn is to grow! Determination: Your laser-like focus drives you to overcome obstacles. You draw strength and perseverance from your commitment to see things through. Empathy: Your connection to other people allows you to sense their feelings and needs. You use your sensitivity to understand and help people. Passion: Your strong sense of purpose drives you to make a difference. You bring great energy and deep commitment to the things you care about. Resilience: Your ability to adapt helps you through tough times. You can problem-solve through missteps to get back on course.
History Colorado itself has been working to get back on course for a few years, since a major realignment that led to layoffs to get the budget on track and also switched toward telling Colorado-centric stories, rather than one-off blockbusters from other venues.
But it takes time to develop exhibits, and History Colorado is just now rolling out displays that show that shift in focus. What's Your Story? mirrors several ongoing engagement initiatives at the organization designed to bring history back home...and Coloradans back in the doors of the history museum, again and again.
What's Your Story? opens on Saturday, October 19, at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway. Find out more at coloradohistory.org.