A fire on April 19, 1863 destroyed 70 structures in Denver; a flood the following year covered Auraria with six feet of water and mud. In the 1850s, the area near 15th and Blake streets was the summer home of 1,200 or so members of the Southern Arapaho tribe. The Tremont House hotel once stood along Cherry Creek and charged guests $1 a night for lodging.
A class of MSU Denver students has opened a window on the past of Denver and Auraria in an exhibit in the student lounge on the second floor of the Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center. Five display cases contain an impressive collection of artifacts, photographs, models and more that provide visitors a snapshot of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Twenty students assembled the exhibit as part of the inaugural Introduction to Museum Studies course taught by David V. Hill, an affiliate professor of anthropology. The exhibit was launched with an open house at the HLC in late November and will stay on display until the spring 2013 when it will be replaced by a new exhibit by future museum studies students.
“At any professional museum opening you have an opening night event,” Hill says. “This is something I really wanted to plan for my students because they really worked hard.”
Through lectures, field trips and what Hill calls “real hands-on creation,” the students learned a good deal of local history and the practical skills of assembling a professional-grade museum exhibit. They researched early Denver and Auraria to organize the exhibit in categories that showcase big names and ordinary folks and the items they left behind.
There’s a replica of the noose used by Thomas Pollack, who served as the town’s marshal and hangman. Photos of Southern Arapaho Chief Little Raven accompany depictions of his settlement. Another case holds an assortment of bottles, jars, tools and other items discovered during excavations on campus. The trailblazer display features stories of prominent people such as Dr. Justina Ford, Denver’s first and only female physician in the early 1900s; Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a founding father of the Chicano Movement, and John Kernan Mullen, who made a fortune in the flour mill industry and donated the property and $5,000 to begin construction of St. Cajetan’s Church.
Except for the display cases, which are are on loan from the Denver Art Museum, everything else was done by the students. Narratives, which are also in Braille, provide context for the exhibit, which drew on the resources of History Colorado, the Denver Public Library, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and individuals.
Hill says his students “were on fire” in researching and assembling the exhibit. “I learned there is a lot more to museums than I ever thought,” says student Aaron Lamb, who oversaw all the photography and chronicled the students’ work with his camera.
Hill says the course filled in three weeks and an encore will be offered next semester. He might pitch the idea of a certificate program in museum studies down the road. But for now, he says, “we just wanted to see how it worked once, and it exceeded expectations.”
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