Will the bureaucracy eat up Patty Limerick?
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Limerick’s reputation as a provocateur precedes her, although she insists it’s a bit outdated.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.
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.