Will the bu­reau­cracy eat up Patty Lim­er­ick?

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

Ap­point­ing Patty Lim­er­ick to be Colorado’s state his­to­rian is kind of like putting John El­way in the front of­fice of the Den­ver Bron­cos. Both are su­per­stars in their field and beloved veter­ans who scored their rep­u­ta­tions by do­ing the grunt work, not call­ing the shots.

That’s not an ex­act anal­ogy. In ad­di­tion to her land­mark re­search and writ­ings on the re­gion’s sto­ried past, Lim­er­ick has run the Cen­ter of the Amer­i­can West at the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der for the past three decades. But that’s academia; she has never been the one re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing his­tory to the masses in the most di­rect way pos­si­ble — through ex­hi­bi­tions at ma­jor mu­se­ums.

That’s Lim­er­ick’s pri­mary charge in the po­si­tion she as­sumed last week. She’ll di­rect pro­gram­ming at the His­tory Colorado Cen­ter in Den­ver as well as smaller out­posts spread across the state — and it could get in­ter­est­ing for the rest of us.

She’s a colorful char­ac­ter, opin­ion­ated and very pub­lic. Th­ese are not traits you of­ten see ei­ther in the mu­seum world or at a state agency, a fact that bears it­self out in the his­tory mu­seum’s earnest, if not all that ex­cit­ing, fare.

For her part, Lim­er­ick sees the tran­si­tion as a nat­u­ral. “I have

al­ways had the fun­da­men­tal job of be­ing out in the world mak­ing a case for his­tory,” she said.

And she’s com­fort­able tak­ing her place in the of­ten face­less bu­reau­cracy of state govern­ment.

“When we re­ally like a per­son, we call them a pub­lic ser­vant. When we don’t, we call them a bu­reau­crat. And that leaves only drudges and petty tyrants in the cat­e­gory of bu­reau­crat,” she said.

Lim­er­ick thinks bet­ter of govern­ment work­ers. “If I’m out of the closet to­day as bu­reau­crat, then woo-hoo!”

Still, she sees the per­ils. She has never re­ally been one to stake open po­si­tions on spe­cific can­di­dates or bal­lot is­sues. But she does take on the sys­tem, some­times through her monthly free­lance col­umn that runs in The Den­ver Post. In one re­cent ar­ti­cle, she called light­ning rod pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump “a jerk.” In an­other, she re­duced the level of con­tem­po­rary cam­paign di­a­logue to “unil­lu­mi­nat­ing, un-en­light­en­ing, and un-in­spir­ing or­a­tory.”

That may not be con­tro­ver­sial in a news­pa­per or a cam­pus lecture, but it’s more than enough when you re­port to the gov­er­nor and 100 state leg­is­la­tors, none of whom like to think of them­selves as a blovi­a­tor.

Lim­er­ick’s rep­u­ta­tion as a provo­ca­teur pre­cedes her, al­though she in­sists it’s a bit out­dated. At 64, she has learned that think­ing be­fore speak­ing is usu­ally the best strat­egy for any given mo­ment. She’ll do her best to fit in at His­tory Colorado. “Per­son­ally, I am not in­ter­ested in leav­ing a mess in my wake,” she said.

Her strength will be what it al­ways was — de­liv­er­ing schol­ar­ship-based in­for­ma­tion that holds ac­tions from the past ac­count­able for things hap­pen­ing in the present. Asked to imag­ine a dream ex­hi­bi­tion for the state his­tory mu­seum, she con­jures up clas­sic Lim­er­ick: a show on Amer­i­can veter­ans that also in­cludes the In­dian war­riors who bat­tled govern­ment troops. Sure, they’re vets, too, al­though not ev­ery­one will like her point of view.

A chang­ing mu­seum

His­tory Colorado knows what it’s get­ting into, and it knows Lim­er­ick brings a level of clout that could be hard to cen­sor if things get tense. But the pro­fes­sor comes with ben­e­fits be­yond her abil­ity to talk about his­tory in a way that makes peo­ple pay at­ten­tion.

The ap­point­ment is a “three­fer,” ac­cord­ing to board Chair Ann Prit­zlaff, and part of a re­or­ga­ni­za­tion that will have the in­sti­tu­tion co­op­er­at­ing more fully with the state’s top univer­sity.

It gets Lim­er­ick, whom it doesn’t have to pay since she’ll do her du­ties as part of her present po­si­tion at CU. And it gets a new in-house con­sul­tant in the cen­ter’s Ja­son Han­son, who will be­come Deputy State His­to­rian and of­fice out of His­tory Colorado’s head­quar­ters down­town. Also, it gets a di­rect con­nec­tion to all of the re­search go­ing on by pro­fes­sors and grad­u­ate stu­dents at the univer­sity, free la­bor that will pro­vide the means to keep the mu­seum’s of­fer­ings on the cut­ting edge of his­tory.

And Prit­zlaff says, the mu­seum is look­ing to shake up its fare any­way. It is com­ing out of a pub­lic bud­get crash caused by de­clines in its main rev­enue source — taxes on le­gal gam­bling.

The fi­nan­cial crises forced spend­ing cuts and lay­offs in Novem­ber and caused con­sid­er­able tur­moil that led to the de­par­ture of nearly all top man­agers, in­clud­ing for­mer State His­to­rian Wil­liam Con­very and CEO Ed­ward Ni­chols, who is yet to be re­placed.

At the same time, it is in the process of stream­lin­ing its or­ga­ni­za­tion. Re­cently, the board of di­rec­tors tran­si­tioned from 23 self­ap­pointed mem­bers to just nine, all ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor.

The mu­seum moved into a new $110 mil­lion build­ing down­town in 2012, and the down­sized board wants to re­align what goes on dis­play. The mu­seum re­cently ex­per­i­mented with tour­ing block­buster ex­hi­bi­tions, such as “Toys” and “1968.” While the two ex­hi­bi­tions drew record crowds, they were off-track for a place whose mis­sion is strictly Colorado.

“We want to tell Colorado sto­ries, we want to use Colorado items from our col­lec­tion and we want to cap­i­tal­ize on the re­sources of many part­ners,” said Prit­zlaff.

That’s not as lim­it­ing as it might sound. His­tory Colorado main­tains the state’s ar­chives, which means it con­trols 1.5 mil­lion ob­jects of cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance that can serve as the soul of its ex­hi­bi­tions.

They just need to be pre­sented in ways that speak di­rectly to the pub­lic and keep cus­tomers walk­ing through the doors.

That’s where Lim­er­ick comes in. She al­ready has a pub­lic fol­low­ing as a suc­cess­ful au­thor of books, in­clud­ing “Legacy of Con­quest: The Un­bro­ken Past of the Amer­i­can West” and “A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Wa­ter.” She is con­nected in­ter­na­tion­ally in the his­tory field and be­yond. Last week, she was named to the ad­vi­sory board of the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties. When she speaks, peo­ple show up; Lim­er­ick can be charm­ing and funny with­out even try­ing.

Can she work her magic in the con­fines of a state in­sti­tu­tion that has been around for 137 years? Prit­zlaff hopes so, and prom­ises to stick by the new cu­ra­tor and her ex­pert team, even if their opin­ions on the past get con­tro­ver­sial. “Like all good schol­ars,” Prit­zlaff says, “if they credit where they are get­ting that opin­ion from, then OK.”

Patty Lim­er­ick is as close to a celebrity as the his­tory field has. She’s the new state his­to­rian.

Cyrus McCrim­mon, Den­ver Post file

Patty Lim­er­ick’s strength will be what it al­ways was — de­liv­er­ing schol­ar­ship-based in­for­ma­tion that holds ac­tions from the past ac­count­able for things hap­pen­ing in the present.

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