History Colorado “Living West” exhibit highlights Breckenridge’s environmental past
Life in the Mesa Verde region 800 years ago; the 1930s Dust Bowl on the southeastern plains; today’s Rocky Mountains. From past to present, these three time periods in Colorado past are all part of a new exhibit focusing on the state’s environmental history.
History Colorado in Denver will launch the second of three exhibition phases at the History Colorado Center with the 7,000-square-foot exhibit “Living West” on Saturday, Nov. 23.
Liz Cook, environmental educator and developer of the “Our Mountains” section of the exhibit, said she looked at overarching themes throughout Colorado history to help her develop the story of how people have shaped and changed the environment.
“In posing these historic questions, people are also going to think about contemporary issues whenever you mention environment,” she said. “These are historic times we’re living in and in 200 years it’s going to be just as important to look back at the choices and changes we’re making at this point.”
Summit County is featured in the “Our Mountains” section. Visitors walk through a smaller replica of the Eisenhower tunnel, before seeing a video about driving from Denver to Breckenridge.
Cook said in choosing a mountain location as the exhibit focal point, Breck stood out because of its historic change from a mining town to a recreation- and ski-focused location.
History Colorado’s exhibit developers worked with environmental and archaeological experts from around the state to weave environmental history into the human story.
The “Our Mountains” section also explores topics like increasing interactions with wildlife, the pika as a climate-change marker, beetle-kill pine, bears, elk and wildfires.
“In the mountain section, the intent is to have visitors really converse and talk about their stories,” Cook said. “It’s very much the dream that those voices come through and people in there really talk about things they’ve seen around Colorado.”
Exhibit planning began two years ago. Cook said she had to adjust signs about wildfire in Colorado after the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and again after this summer’s fires.
The exhibit specifically addresses the impact the pine beetle has had, and the importance of alpine snowpack as a water source for the rest of the state. An interactive feature demonstrates just how many feet of snowpack are needed to get a certain amount of water.
“People really think water is important, but indicated they were worried in a museum it would be boring,” Cook said. “So we were challenged to get across a sense of importance while also being engaging for people.”
The mountain section ends at the Summit Cafe, an interactive space designed to feel like a location in a town like Breckenridge, with skis and vintage ski resort posters hanging on the walls. Visitors can measure their carbon footprint and even provide suggestions for solutions to mountain traffic issues.
“When people see the exhibit they’ll be reminded of the times they’ve driven up and down the pass,” Cook said. “And next time someone drives up to the mountains to go skiing or in the summer time to visit, hopefully we’ve given them some things to notice or think about.”
The video guide in this section is Breckenridge resident Larissa O’Neil, director of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. She speaks about changes she’s seen in the mountains over time.
The second phase also features new educational programs, live museum theater, demonstrations and performances, as well as two traveling exhibits coming in 2014.
“We designed the exhibit to engage kids at a very visceral level, but provide information for adults to walk away with as well,” said Rebecca Laurie, History Colorado spokesperson.
For Cook, a Colorado native, driving through the mountains and seeing the changes over the years to the trees and natural environment was emotional. She said many people question what’s happening, and this exhibit will provide some answers.
“Whether people are starting here in Denver and then driving up to the mountains, or coming down to visit the exhibit, we want to help make sense of the things they’re seeing,” she said. “It helps make those connections — the snow up there in the mountains, that’s my water, and why that’s important.”
“Living West” is included in the cost of a general History Colorado admission ticket: $12 adults, $10 students/seniors 65+, $8 children 6 to 12; children 5 and under are free. For more information and hours, visit http://www.HistoryColoradoCenter.org.
Nov. 21, 2013: An earlier version of this story reported visitors could walk through a replica of the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel. Only the westbound Eisenhower tunnel is shown in the exhibit, as guests start out the section traveling up to the mountains.
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