Late last month Denver’s newest museum, the History Colorado Center opened the first phase of its three-tiered reveal to the 90,000 visitors they expect in their first year. Designed to share 10,000 years worth of stories and artifacts about the state and its people, at the same time the museum successfully looks forward to the future with high-tech exhibits and a hands-on experience for a new generation of museum-goers, bringing history to life, and having fun in the process. Night at the Museum anyone? Well, maybe not quite.
Take for example the H.G. Wells inspired “time machines” that move across a 40-by-60 ft. terrazzo tile map of Colorado as seen from 400 miles out in space. When moved across the map, created by homegrown artist Steven Weitzman, the time machines reveal a series of videos and stories as they relate to particular regions on the topographic image. Not convinced? How about the 132 interlocking LCD screens in the HCC atrium featuring a timeline orienting visitors to the chronology of Colorado history, to say nothing of the virtual ski jump at Steamboat Springs where Norwegian ski champion Carl Howelsen will teach you the correct technique. (A little bit of trivia: skiing didn’t become a leisure sport in Colorado until Howelsen began teaching children in Steamboat Springs how to jump. Before Howelsen brought ski jumping to Steamboat, skiing in Colorado was a purely pragmatic method of transportation across snow-covered terrain.) And by the way, the building, designed by the Denver-based firm Tryba Architects, is LEED Gold certified. Hurray for being green.
But the highlight of the museum, if you ask me, is the wit and fun of many of the exhibits, thanks to Kathryn Hill and Dr. William J. Convery, the COO and the Director of Exhibits respectively. (Dr. Convery is also the State Historian – cool!). The museum manages to weave together serious pieces of history with stories one might not normally encounter in an institution of this stature or scale. (The final product cost a cool $143 million.)
Tim McKernan, a die hard Denver Broncos fan, also known as the Barrel Man for his game-day uniform: McKernan attended every home game for thirty years completely naked except for a bright orange barrel, a cowboy hat, and boots, even in sub zero temperatures. Talk about a fanatic.
Or did you hear the one about “Miracle Mike” the headless chicken? The poor clucker lost his noggin when a hungry farmer’s dinner plans went horribly awry. As Lloyd Olson took Mike to the chopping block, the chicken’s head came clean off, but Olson missed Mike’s brain stem—and he lived!—leaving Mike literally running around like a headless chicken for a subsequent 18 months. To add insult to injury, Olson began charging curious Coloradans 25¢ a pop to see the acephalous bird until he finally kicked the bucket; may he rest in peace. That really is local history at its finest.
But on a more serious note, were you aware that in the 1920's, the Lincoln Hills resort community, southwest of Boulder, drew African Americans from all over the country to hike, fish and camp when they were excluded from whites only retreats? And did you know that the Amache-Granada Relocation Center—an internment camp where Japanese and Japanese-Americans were held during World War II—was located in the Centennial State? And that as a result of then Governor Ralph Carr’s advocacy for their freedom, many detainees chose to remain in Colorado after their release?
“The History Colorado Center was developed with our audiences in mind,” said Kathryn Hill. “We had to start from scratch to create a destination that helps us to better understand our present in the context of the past, supported by exhibits and programs that tell very human, emotionally-engaging stories that provoke us to ask tough questions and explore our own contributions to Colorado’s future.”
And while we're on the subject of Denver, I couldn't help but remember that hilarious line from Old School when Mitch (played by Luke Wilson) in response to Ellen Pompeo's character, Nicole, saying she has moved to Denver, blurts out "Ah, the Sunshine State. Denver. GORGEOUS!"
The History Colorado Center is located at 1200 Broadway, Denver. (303) 447-8679. For information, visit historycoloradocenter.org
Marguerite A. Suozzi is an Assistant Research Editor at Travel + Leisure.