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Through the Past, Deftly

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The Colorado History Museum's new exhibit on the 1960s and '70s is filled with contradictions. It's elegant in places, crude elsewhere; there are joyful moments and sad ones. And conveying these contradictions is exactly what the show's principal organizer, Stan Oliner, had in mind. "As I looked at the period, I began to see that things never came out as expected," Oliner says. "I liken it to an Australian boomerang."

Oliner, the highly respected curator of books and manuscripts at the Colorado Historical Society, has been preparing for this show for the last five years, and his Herculean effort is clearly revealed in the intelligent and even passionate way in which more than 600 artifacts have been assembled. The Times They Are a-Changin': Colorado in the 60s and 70s, which fills the ground-floor galleries of the CHM, is a riveting display that takes on dozens of topics in dozens of ways. It guides the viewer from John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 to Ronald Reagan's in 1981. It's the seventh exhibit in the CHM's series on the twentieth century in Colorado, a string of shows that began in 1990 and is set to end, appropriately enough, in 1999. And it's by far the best.

As laid out by exhibition designer David Mandel, this latest show is a maze of small physical spaces, one leading to the next. That intricate approach also reflects Oliner's intentions: "There's no straight way through the period," he notes.

Joined in his efforts by a team of curators, Oliner has taken fifteen Coloradans and used their lives to illustrate the big events of the two decades that are his topic. For instance, the show begins with a video of Kennedy's inaugural address, in which JFK called for the creation of the Peace Corps (which, we learn, had its roots in a "feasibility study" conducted by a professor at Colorado State University). Oliner tracked down three Peace Corps volunteers from Colorado and has displayed their mementos and letters in Plexiglas showcases.

Oliner's look at the darker side of the 1960s begins with a purposefully claustrophobic section devoted to JFK's assassination. Included are a small selection of touching handwritten notes left by Coloradans in Dallas. These rare documents were loaned by the Dallas Public Library, whose staffers had the presence of mind in the days after the assassination to gather messages left on Dealey Plaza. Oliner also includes an Italian-made rifle of the type used by Lee Harvey Oswald as well as a copy of the Associated Press bulletin announcing the tragic event.

Much of the show is devoted to the Vietnam War, and in his treatment of the subject, Oliner again reveals a knack for underscoring the significance of momentous historical events through the revelation of small, individual heartbreaks. For instance, he displays the personal effects of Donnie Osborn, an Army pilot from Colorado who was killed during the war. These poignant objects include Osborn's last letter home to his parents and the telegram from the Army informing his family of his death. In a nearby display case is the porcelain lining for a flak jacket that was made by Coors in Golden. Not surprisingly, the piece is reminiscent of the breastplate from a suit of armor.

Oliner deftly uses Vietnam to express the contradictions of the period. How better to do so than with an anonymous photograph of a peace sign carved into the Vietnamese countryside with a bulldozer?

Another double whammy came to Oliner while he was looking through newspaper clippings on the war. He came across a feel-good 1967 wire- service article titled "Colorado Cowboy in Vietnam," which told the story of a Navy pilot from Colorado. Oliner tracked down John M. McGrath's parents here in Denver, who told Oliner that only a few weeks after the article appeared, their son was shot down and spent the next six years in North Vietnam's infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison camp. After his release in 1973, McGrath made detailed drawings of life inside the camp, some of which Oliner has included in the show.

A component of the Vietnam section of the show focuses on the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, which was filled with returning wounded. The G.I. Joe doll in a hospital bed--the dummies were used to train nurses in caring for the injured--has a breathtaking effect. Like the bulldozed peace sign on the battlefield, it's simultaneously sweet and creepy.

Of course, no show on this period would be complete if it didn't address the anti-war movement. Oliner does so with a room of photo enlargements taken by Harry Rufner during the tumultuous days at Ohio's Kent State University in the spring of 1970. Now a vice president at AT&T in Denver, Rufner was the yearbook editor at Kent State when a peaceful campus demonstration turned deadly. Hired by Time-Life as a stringer, Rufner took his camera and followed Ohio National Guard troops as they fired on student protestors. Particularly chilling is the photograph Rufner got by aiming his camera down the barrel of a loaded rifle. The small, semi-enclosed gallery specially created for the Kent State photos includes a sound cone that plays a recorded loop of news reports of the shooting.

The section on Vietnam winds up in a somber room lined with panels that list each Colorado casualty of the conflict. Printed in white on black, these panels are obviously evocative of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. In keeping with one of the traditions of that memorial, Oliner has included items left by Coloradans at the Wall, artifacts that were loaned to the CHM by the National Park Service.

By this point most viewers will be in the mood for a little uplift, and Oliner provides it through much of the rest of the show. An area devoted to popular music includes a myriad of items, including awards, posters and a set of handwritten lyrics penned by Jimi Hendrix; chief among the donors to this display was concert promoter Barry Fey. Also on the lighter side are exhibits depicting the Muppets of Jim Henson, who came to Denver in 1970 so that Lee Harrison III of Computer Imaging Corporation could work up some of the world's first computer animation.

"Computer animation for television was unheard of at that time," says Oliner. Harrison's pioneering efforts for Sesame Street won him an Emmy in 1972. As a result of that early work, says Oliner, "all computer animation today can be traced right back here to Denver."

For followers of the visual arts, The Times They Are a-Changin' really gets going with a group of displays that explore the division between high culture and the counterculture. Behind transparent walls--a needed precaution against thievery--are several period rooms. On one side is the emblem of the counterculture: a hippie pad complete with black-light posters, hash pipes and Jerry Rubin and John Lennon books stacked on a shelf made from cinderblocks and wooden boards. If memory serves, this hypothetical room is a lot cleaner than was the case with the authentic article, but it will still take older viewers aback with a feeling of nostalgia. The spectacular array of funky boutique and head-shop items are on loan anonymously from a Denver couple. Adds Oliner, "They assured us that the pipes haven't been used in years."

Opposite the hippie pad is a dining room intended to represent the high culture of the period. It features an exquisite steel-and-walnut dining table by Warren Plattner and a pair of "Ion" chairs originally designed for Seattle's Space Needle. The table and chairs, as well as many other pieces in this portion of the show are on loan from Hugh Grant, director of Denver's Kirkland Foundation. And it's a good thing Grant got involved, because the dining room also includes a couple of pieces from the CHM's permanent collection: a tacky hi-fi console above which is hung an even tackier swag lamp. Both should have been left in the basement. "We have real gaps in our collection from the post-war era," Oliner admits.

This section also brings to life a teenage girl's bedroom of the 1960s, whose star attraction is the very cool Star Trek Barbie and Ken set--still in its original box, no less. Getting equal time in a separate display case nearby are a set of masculine equivalents: Broncos and Nuggets uniforms from the period. The strength of this showcase, which will be a real treat for fans of sports memorabilia, are the jerseys, helmets, game balls and playbooks loaned by former Broncos head coach Red Miller.

Beyond the sports area is a large display of furniture, ceramics and glass by designers such as Paul McCobb and Russel Wright, which is anchored by a selection of Vance Kirkland paintings and Edgar Britton bronzes. All are on loan from Grant and the Kirkland Foundation, and it's clear that these are the sort of things the CHM needs to be actively collecting now, before such significant period items are no longer available.

The art and design portion of the show leads the viewer to a small display devoted to the artist's commune "Drop City," which was located outside Trinidad, then a nationally famous center for alternative living. Among the standouts are photographs of the original dome structures, including one taken during construction that was loaned to the CHM by Clark Richert, one of the commune's founders.

As we wind our way to the end of the exhibit, we get a brief glimpse of period architecture and urban design. New buildings of two decades are set against the destruction of historic architecture and the subsequent rise of the historic-preservation movement. You don't need a program to separate the heroes from the villains: The preservationists of Historic Denver wear the white hats, the destroyers of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority the black.

Adjacent to the architectural section is a brief look at the rise of the environmental movement that was launched with the creation of Earth Day in 1970. Not far away, the increasing importance of high tech is symbolized, both by a fledgling personal computer built in Denver by the Digital Group in 1977 and by a collection of the personal belongings of astronaut Jack Swigert.

Oliner appropriately sees the era he explores in this show as ending with the swearing in of Reagan in 1981, an event that was broadcast with a split screen to show the release of the American hostages from Iran. So that's how he closes the exhibit--with a TV monitor featuring videotapes of the events as they were originally broadcast. Just like the Kennedy clip at the beginning.

"There's that boomerang again," notes Oliner. And it packs a wallop.

The Times They Are a-Changin': Colorado in the 60s and 70s, through August 9, 1998, at the Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 866-3682.

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