New displays highlight park’s science, history

This blooming claret cup cactus signifies spring has arrived at Colorado National Monument.



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This is the last in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.

When the monument’s visitor center was built in 1964, its museum-like exhibits of geology, wildlife and Native American culture were considered state-of-the-art.

But that was 47 years ago. For some time now, the bloom’s been off the rose.

Today, those vintage displays are gone, making way for a complete overhaul of the exhibit hall. Needless to say, such changes didn’t occur overnight.

This National Park Service project has been in the works for more than a decade. The dramatic results revitalize the visitor center into a 21st century museum. They illuminate historic, natural and cultural facets of the monument through a sparkling prism.

Contemporary exhibits feature multimedia and interactive elements for visitors, highlighting geology and the Colorado Plateau, characteristics of the pinyon-juniper woodland, and the human dimension of Ute Indians, conservationist John Otto and the road builders of Rim Rock Drive.

Artifacts on display include a detonator used to blast sandstone walls and tunnels, 19th century Ute moccasins, and original iron pipes that Otto used to muscle his way up Independence Monument.

Extensive planning and research went into this project under the guidance of Michelle Wheatley, chief of interpretation and visitor services at the monument. She recently discussed its evolution.

Q: Can you elaborate on the development of these new exhibits?

MW: The original design phase of the project started in 2000. At that time, the park started by working with the Interpretive Design Center for the National Park Service to come up with conceptual drawings.

Q: Then the project was delayed?

MW: There wasn’t enough money to move forward with the project so at that time it was shelved. Phase II started in 2005 when a second conceptual drawing was created. Four years later, in 2009, the monument’s management team committed to move this project forward into a design and development stage.

Q: Has momentum been building ever since?

MW: For the last two years my staff and I have been working closely with exhibit planners, designers and an exhibit fabrication contractor.

Q: Can you describe these new exhibits?

MW: They focus on extraordinary examples of weather and erosion and how those powerful forces influence natural processes, habitats, plants and animals, and even human events here at the monument.

Q: Who paid for the project?

MW: Funding was made possible by entrance fees collected at the entrance stations.

Q: What was your role on the project?

MW: I was responsible for formulating ideas, concepts, coordinating meetings with subject matter experts, conducting consultation meetings with the Northern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute cultural resource specialists, identifying photographs, exhibit pieces and artifacts for the exhibit presentation.

Q: Why are these exhibits important?

MW: I think they can help all of us explore relationships between geology, ecology, wildlife and human history. It is my hope that these new exhibits will serve as a catalyst for our visitors to seek out the monument’s natural and cultural resources on their own.

Q: What’s your personal impression of the results?

MW: I am extremely excited about the new exhibits. They tell the story of Colorado National Monument. And I’m very pleased that the Northern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes helped shape this project because it tells their story in a relevant and accurate fashion.

Editor’s Note: Grand opening for the visitor center’s exhibit hall is part of the monument’s Centennial Celebration Ceremony on Saturday. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. at the visitor center. Featured speakers include U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, State Rep. Laura Bradford, Northern Ute Tribal Elder Clifford Duncan and monument Superintendent Joan Anzelmo. Open seating begins at 10 a.m.

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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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