History Colorado Changes Reflect Some Revisionist History

On August 1, thousands of people followed the urging of the banner outside the History Colorado Center to “step into the story” and went inside for a celebration of Colorado Day complete with cowboy tricks, rare artifact displays from the museum's usually off-limits treasure trove, and cake.

But the revelers, who were celebrating the 139th birthday of Colorado, didn’t know that the party was already over — or what a big story they were stepping into. Overseeing the festivities that day was History Colorado CEO Ed Nichols, who less than three weeks later sent this note to his 130-member staff.
Dear History Colorado Family,

For the last eight years I have had the pleasure of working with each of you on a very important assignment: Providing our fellow Coloradans, students, and visitors to our state, with an insight into our history and an opportunity to dream about the future. It has been an experience of a lifetime, and I will always treasure the memories we have made together. You, all of you, made this work a pleasure and I have been honored to stand with you.

Today I write you to share that this fall I will be retiring from my position as President and CEO of History Colorado. I am immensely proud of the team of professionals you are, and the work we have done — both here at 1200 Broadway, across the state in our community museums, and in each of Colorado’s 64 counties through the amazing preservation activities that have occurred.”
His note ended with an invitation to an all-staff meeting that afternoon, August 20, to which the media was invited, then uninvited, then invited again — because History Colorado is technically a state agency (it got its start as the State Historical Society of Colorado just a few years after Colorado became a state) under the Department of Higher Education. And by the end of that teary meeting, the staffers in attendance had learned that not only was Nichols retiring, but so was Katherine Hill, the museum’s chief operating officer and the architect of the exhibits inside the $110 million History Colorado Center that opened in April 2012 with a new brand  — History Colorado, rather than the old-fashioned Colorado Historical Society — and lots of anticipation. Coloradans love their history; in a young state, the past is never far away.

But it wasn’t easy to find here. The new building had become necessary when the Colorado Justice Center spread onto the spot a block away where the Colorado History Museum had stood for three decades; largely funded by the state and designed by local architect David Tryba, the new structure quickly got raves across the country. The exhibits, not so much. After first wondering if Colorado even had enough history to fill the place, a New York Times reporter lauded the History Colorado Center, “meant to be as monumental as the museum’s ambition.” And then he concluded with this: “Colorado clearly has enough history to make a visitor wish that the exploration were more complete and less ready to offer revision without real interpretation.”

That was kinder than what Westword critic Michael Paglia had to say. He was so 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!) that he came up with ten ideas for shows that should have opened the place, such as a display devoted to Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (which could really use the attention) instead of the abysmal Colorado Stories and Destination Colorado.

The latter, a salute to the now-long-gone farming town of Keota, is a quick trip into the past that leaves no lasting mark — except for a replica of Keota’s train station that extends into the stunning atrium, adding a cheesy, amusement-park feel to the place and distracting attention from an inlaid map of Colorado, over which visitors can glide on steampunk time machines to hear more stories. Some things work.

Others do not.

Although the new History Colorado Center is large, there's not much space given over to exhibits. And rather than displaying items from the museum's impressive collections, several of the exhibits rely on dumbed-down gimmicks. Denver A to Z is an embarrassing display catering to kids and the school groups that History Colorado points to as one sign of its programming successes. Z is for Zombie? Only if the dead buried at Cheesman Park suddenly bloom like that Corpse Flower that brought the hordes to the nearby Denver Botanic Gardens last week.

The Bent’s Fort section of Colorado Stories is a simplistic cartoon, with caricatures of Native Americans that wouldn’t play in a ’50s Disney film. The exhibit devoted to Camp Amache, the internment camp outside of Grenada in southeastern Colorado, makes it look like the Japanese-Americans warehoused there for four years were at a posh summer camp. Many months and complaints after that display opened, History Colorado put up a sign noting that it was not to scale: “This exhibit gallery is intended to convey a sense of  the physical environment, while still meeting the legal accessibility requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Historically, barracks apartments were smaller, and far more confining.”

Those historic liberties paled, though, in comparison with the problems at Collision, the Colorado Stories exhibit devoted to the Sand Creek Massacre. At first, representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who’d lost ancestors when Colorado John Chivington and his volunteers led the raid on November 29, 1864, did not go public with their concerns. When they learned of the proposed content of the display, they asked History Colorado to make significant changes. When the exhibit opened without those changes, they wrote letter after letter asking that Collision be closed until changes were made. Finally, they agreed to let me make their story public — and four months later, Collision was finally shuttered  when museum representatives entered into consultations with the tribal representatives that not only should have been part of the planning process all along, but are actually required under the federal legislation that created the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

At first, a sign indicated where Collision had been. Today that wall is painted over, as if the controversy had never happened, as if 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho had not been massacred on the banks of Sand Creek 150 years before.

In March 2014, Governor John Hickenlooper appointed a Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission to make sure that this dark chapter in Colorado history would be remembered. (Both History Colorado's Nichols and I were on the commission, which also included educators, religious leaders, historians, politicians and tribal members.) While preparations were being made for the state’s commemorative activities last fall, there were plenty of activities behind the scenes, too. If the fuss over Collision had been distracting for History Colorado, the results of a routine legislative audit of History Colorado released in the summer of 2014 were disastrous, detailing numerous problems and a major funding shortfall. Although four of the five major points could be addressed immediately by tightening belts and systems, dealing with the fifth, “governance,” required more work, says boardmember and current  History Colorado chair Ann Pritzlaff. She was part of a task force of boardmembers who worked with state officials from the Department of Higher Education, the budget office, even the governor’s office, to come up with a legislative remedy that would bring History Colorado’s structure in line with the educational institutions already under Higher Education.

The bill they crafted passed this spring with little notice, but it called for a big change: Instead of the almost thirty-member board appointed by History Colorado’s membership, a new board — nine members in all — would be appointed by the July 1. Still, Hickenlooper quickly came up with a list: Half came from the existing board, and four more from the community, where they’d acquired strong reputations for fiscal oversight and fundraising — a sign that the state is taking History Colorado’s revenue shortfall seriously.

One spot is still open, but members of the new History Colorado board didn’t wait for that appointment before taking action. In mid-July, they gave all 130 staffers — not just in Denver, but at History Colorado's outlying museums and facilities — the options of voluntary retirement/separation or taking furloughs. The goal is to take a $15 million budget down to $12 million over the next two years — which put History Colorado back to where it was at 2008, at the pre-recession level, Nichols points out. And Nichols and Hill aren’t the only top officials to go; vice-president of facilities Joseph Bell is leaving, too, as is state historian Bill Convery.

State historic preservation officer Steve Turner is staying, and his grant budget, which this past year handed out $9 million across the state, has not been cut. (Then again, the state audit found not a single problem with the 400 grants it studied, Pritzlaff points out.)

But even as this story has been told over the past week, there’s been some revisionist history at work. The talking points have all been about numbers — but instead of talking about budget cuts made necessary by decreased gaming revenues going to historic preservation, History Colorado needs to focus on other numbers. School groups may be coming, but membership is not increasing. The 1968 exhibit  brought in record numbers but, like the current Toys, was itself brought in from outside institutions, and had little to do with Colorado. (The inventor of the Barbie Doll did go to the University of Denver — but even that connection got short shrift.) "History museums are looking at ways to be more relevant," Pritzlaff notes. And one of the challenges, Nichols adds, is "how to keep these new visitors in the fold." 

And even the much-touted rise in attendance — up from 60,000 for the last full year of the old museum to 200,000 last year, Nichols says — doesn’t count much when a former employee points out that attendance was already at 160,000 in 2008-’09, the year before the original museum closed. But Nichols disputes those numbers, which were taken from the Colorado Historical Society's annual report. "The net of the numbers conversation is a change in reporting as of 2012 when we opened the new facility with a POS (point of sale) system that tracked the numbers of fee paying attendees. Prior to that we reported all attendees (library, member events, etc.). We tracked fee paying back to FY09 where we had 51,663. In 2015 we had 203,285," he says.

No one thinks that museum, although charmingly dated, was a model for the future. But what about the current exhibits at History Colorado?

In the next few weeks, a new acting CEO will be named, and he or she will get to work with the board and the remaining staff of History Colorado and even consultant Nichols on “strategic direction,” Pritzlaff says. “We’ve got so much stuff, we have so many stories. How can we show them off?”

Time for that corpse to bloom.

The original version of this  column appears in the August 27 edition of Westword, which went to press on August 24. This one has been updated to include Ed Nichols's response to the attendance numbers discrepancy, and also reflect that the current budget of $15 million will be cut to $12 million. 
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun