Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Colorado History Museum Review

This Saturday I made my way to the brand new Denver History Museum. The exhibits included displays on 1920s small town life in Keota, Bent Fort in the 1830s-1850s, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II, the Silverton Mine, Olympics, and a summer vacation resort in the mountains for African Americans. The focus is largely on biography, particularly learning about common people. In the Keota exhibit, for example, the visitor learns of the lives of those who actually lived in the town, from the school teacher who returned to the small town after college to the store keeper whose business formed the hub of the town (it was also the post office and lending library). There are numerous artifacts from these individuals and others. At Sand Creek, we learn the
event through the experiences of the individuals, from both Cheyenne Indians and white soldiers. Most exhibits contain an interactive display. There is a country store (great for children) and antique car driving experience in Keota. The entrance to the Silverton Mine replicates an elevator ride down the 500 foot shaft. And there is a ski jump simulator in the Olympic section. This and the Keota car were popular items. The Fort Bent section contained a computer game/simulation. Well done video presentations are another feature of the exhibits. These films contain a good mix of historical context and footage with personal experiences. The African-American vacation camp in the Rocky Mountains demonstrated the value, and rarity, of being able to escape segregation and prejudice in American cities. The video for the Japanese internment was particularly powerful. I was stunned, even as a historian with knowledge of this deplorable incident from our nation’s past, by how the news reels depicted this to the American peoples. No attempt was made to obscure the fact that only a handful of all those of Japanese descent living in American might be disloyal, but the government rounded them all up any way. One talking head boldly and proudly declared, “This is how a democracy handles its problems.” Really !?! They made it sound like a free trip to a vacation resort. One Japanese internee sold his $100,000 business for $5,000 and another young man noticed on arrival that the machine
guns they were told would protect them from mob violence were pointed inside the camp and not outside. The Japanese internment camp exhibit was chilling. So was the KKK uniform on the second floor. I just turned the corner and there it was. I think Americans in general do not understand how prevalent the KKK was in the north in the 1920s. Sometime in the 1980s the Freeport, NY (a coastal Long Island town with a large African American population) fire department was cleaning out its trophy case and found one from the 1920s presented by the KKK. It was a shocking find, but another reminder of the KKK’s popularity in the north during the “Roaring Twenties.” All and all, I think the museum gives Coloradans a well crafted view of several moments of their state’s past. If I had one complaint, it would be that there was not much celebration of the better parts of our past. Like all societies, Americans have had regrettable incidents. It is impossible to overlook the original sin of slavery and the recurrent issue of race. Nor, can one deny the brutal treatment of Native Americans. Yet, the American, and dare I say Coloradan, experience possesses positive virtues that need to be remembered as well.

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