Through the Past, Deftly

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia