On August 1, Colorado Day, History Colorado will install its new State Historians Council, comprising five historians from academic institutions across the state. The University of Colorado Denver's Tom Noel will head the council. And so "Dr. Colorado," as Noel is known, will be in...and Patty Limerick, who was appointed state historian in early 2016, will be out.
And History Colorado will add another chapter to its imperfect past.
The announcement of the establishment of the council, the first in the 139-year-history of what started as the Colorado Historical Society and today is a state agency under the Colorado Department of Education, came early on July 16. But Limerick, who knew that her state historian position would be ending under this reconfiguration, had already offered what could serve as her official farewell (though she did not mention that she was about to get the boot) on July 15, when her monthly column was printed on the front page of the Sunday Denver Post's Perspective section.
"History Colorado and I are old friends," the piece began. "Thirty years ago, still a newcomer to Colorado, I gave the keynote speech at the society's annual members meeting. Over the years, to use the classic Western phrasing, I have not been a stranger to that organization; my deepest mission in life is reaching members of the public to persuade them to find value in history."
Limerick, who published the groundbreaking The Legacy of Conquest in 1987, shortly after she joined the University of Colorado faculty and co-founded CU's Center of the American West, had been named state historian in early 2016, in what was presented by History Colorado and the Governor's Office as a win-win. "The strengthened partnership between these two higher education agencies is a demonstration of Colorado's collaborative spirit and is a testament to the work that state agencies can do together," Governor John Hickenlooper announced.
By then, History Colorado had been making some history of its own. In April 2012, the state celebrated the opening of the $110 million History Colorado Center, the new home of what had been the state historical society, and was now rebranded as History Colorado.
The structure at 1200 Broadway, designed by David Tryba, was “meant to be as monumental as the museum’s ambition,” according to the New York Times. But while the building itself earned raves, the exhibits fell flat. They were Disneyfied and dumbed-down. As it turned out, though, the dumbest things about History Colorado were not the exhibits.
Even before the center opened, the institution had blown its budget and blown its relationship with tribal representatives who were supposed to be consulted on one particular exhibit, Collision, the display in the "Colorado Stories" section that was devoted to the Sand Creek Massacre, that dark day in Colorado history when 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in a peaceful camp on the banks of Sand Creek. The exhibit was inaccurate, embarrassing and added insult to very real injury. And it was opened over the protestations of descendants who'd been guaranteed consultations on such displays by the Congressional act that established the Sand Creek Massacre National Site.
Collision was finally closed (consultations are still under way with tribal representatives on what, if anything, should replace it), and in August 2015, History Colorado CEO Ed Nichols announced he was leaving, as were many of his top staffers. The budget was cut, the unwieldy board reconfigured and trimmed down, the emphasis on expensive touring shows with no relation to Colorado removed, and Steve Turner, the state's historic-preservation officer, elevated to co-interim director. Two summers ago, he was named the official executive director.
History Colorado is now back on budget, and with the opening of Play Ball, a display of Denver attorney Marshall Fogel's collection of baseball memorabilia, and LEGO-rado, which re-creates Colorado landmarks (including Casa Bonita!) in LEGOs, "History Colorado had the highest June attendance since the opening season," Turner reports. But earlier this month, the institution also took a hit in a Colorado Public Radio piece that reported on high staff turnover and management issues.
Limerick cited that report in her column, and also noted that "the current exhibits, as well as the ones on the near horizon, do little to provide historical understandings of issues that concern Coloradans today. On the contrary, most of them register in a genre we would have to call 'history lite.'"
That is not what Limerick envisioned when she took on the role of state historian. The Center of the American West was designed to serve as a forum committed to the civil, respectful and problem-solving exploration of important and often contentious public issues, and she hoped to offer the same at History Colorado. In fact, she still does, as she shared in her Post piece.
"Hence, my current hope: that History Colorado's leadership will join me in a spirited discussion of the ways that historical thinking can serve as a remedy for the bitter polarization and antagonism of the Trump era."
Even after History Colorado sent out its announcement regarding the new State Historians Council — a lineup of respected academicians (History Colorado does not have a historian with a Ph.D. on staff) including Noel, Nicki Gonzales of Regis University, Jared Orsi of Colorado State University, Duane Vandenbusche of Western State Colorado University and William Wei of CU Boulder — Limerick renewed that offer to me.
And her suggestion would seem to fit within the new structure envisioned by Historic Colorado. "The role of the State Historians Council will be to provide even greater opportunity to expand the understanding of the historical perspectives, cultures, and places of Colorado," the July 16 announcement reads. "Councilmembers of the State Historians Council will work with History Colorado to produce and share scholarship about Colorado and connect with more residents throughout the state."
On August 1, these historians will be introduced at History Colorado's annual Colorado Day celebration, which includes free admission and activities. With any luck, and considerable historic perspective, it could also include an announcement that Limerick will be leading some spirited discussions for the institution, discussions that she has had as she travels the country for appearances both official and unofficial, including a chat she had about Colorado history with a fellow traveler who recognized Limerick while she was boarding a plane in Washington, D.C., late last week, even as History Colorado was preparing the announcement of the change it envisioned for the state historian.
"I stopped trying to work with a group of people who weren't ready, and just went to the citizens," she says of her time as state historian. "History Colorado could be playing a spectacular role in bringing people together for much better conversations...and be really, really useful to society in a tough time."
Wouldn't that make some history!
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