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.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon