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In a culture where museums often cater to tourists, History Colorado’s incoming executive director, Dawn DiPrince, is on a different mission: help museums better serve the communities where they reside. DiPrince, who will take over as the leader of the 142-year-old organization in September, is focused on shaping institutions that are ever-present and bolster inclusivity. And as History Colorado’s current chief operating officer, DiPrince has already spent close to 10 years reframing that vision at the nonprofit’s nine statewide community museums, preventing them from becoming tone deaf to the people closest to them. “You can’t do it from behind a desk,” DiPrince says. “You really have to be where people are.”
It’s a proactive approach she’s taken since her start as the assistant director at El Pueblo History Museum in 2012, where DiPrince began capturing the stories of residents via audio and video recordings—laying the groundwork for what eventually became History Colorado’s Museum of Memory Initiative. To date, the memories and histories of people have been documented in nine different areas across the state, including Five Points.
5280 caught up with DiPrince to discuss the impact such history-in-the-making can have, and how she envisions it as the future of History Colorado leading up to her new role this September.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
5280: What changes have you seen these past few years with this new vision for community museums?
Dawn DiPrince: Our work in collaboration with Ute tribes with the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose [laid] the groundwork for Written on the Land, which is an exhibit here at History Colorado Center. El Movimiento was done in deep collaboration with veteranos from the Chicano movement [of the 1960s and 1970s] here in Denver. And then we took that model in Pueblo—we did the exact same thing with Pueblo-based veteranos of the movement and created a Pueblo version of El Movimiento.
All those are examples, in addition to the Museum of Memory work, where we really center the voices of community as part of the story. One of the first exhibits I did for History Colorado is called Children of Ludlow, and it is an award-winning exhibit that is still at Pueblo. And we released it around the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Ludlow Massacre.
We brought community members into a memory workshop where we met descendants. In fact, one woman brought in a photo of her grandfather who was murdered in the massacre. So, those are the kinds of things that you cannot get from history books or archives. The community holds all this knowledge. We just want to build pathways to learn from them.
So really digging in and amplifying that “shared history,” as it’s listed in History Colorado’s mission statement?
This is something I started before I came to History Colorado. My scholarship has always been in how people tell the stories of their lives. I’m not a traditional historian. I’m more interested in people’s personal stories and personal narrative. And I thought, How can I take all of that and apply it to a community? How can we think of memoir, but in this collective sense?
I experimented in my grandmother’s own neighborhood, which is called Old Bojon Town in Pueblo. It was under threat, losing 69 homes to some expansion. And I thought in this very Pollyanna, naive sense, Let’s tell the stories in the neighborhood and [then] nobody would want to tear this beautiful place down. But something else more powerful, more magical happened: [The stories] rekindled the affection that the community had for this place. It reconnected them.
Once that initial experiment happened, we replicated it in other communities. We want to [employ] art-centered ways to interpret stories. Art enables us to get at that spirit of a community and neighborhood. And I think the ways that we connect and learn history through art—these personal interpretations—is much longer lasting. Whether it’s a song or a mural or teatro or poetry—all those things are going to have a longer, [deeper] connection for people.
Speaking of new approaches, this past spring, History Colorado digitized and released Ku Klux Klan membership ledgers, dating from 1924 to 1926 and holding nearly 30,000 entries of the names and addresses of people in the Denver area those affiliated with the Klan. What was significant about this move?
There are so many reasons why we chose to make these more accessible. This is like an evidence-based approach for looking at the past, and it felt important to provide access to this evidence of white supremacy within the formation, and history, and fabric of our state. I think the protests of summer 2020 created an even greater urgency.
I think it did have that kind of generational reverberation. But part of it is also having this greater understanding about our ancestors. How can we be good ancestors, right in this moment, and think about descendants—multiple generations into the future? What kind of future can we shape now that we have this knowledge and archeological evidence, and we can’t look away from it?
With that philosophy in mind, what do you hope to accomplish as executive director?
I really have this belief that history has the power to build vibrant communities. It can heal communities. It has the power to bring us together. It isn’t just a matter of museums. It’s this greater sense of belonging. We strive to make everyone feel as if they belong in Colorado and to know that they belong. History can help us do some of that, whether it’s contending with problematic history or recognizing the rich diversity for many, many generations that are part of this state.
This is how we can connect with each other. It helps form our identity. We’ve seen in some of our youth programs that really is helping young people to see themselves in history. It helps them to better see themselves into the future as well.
We want to ensure that the collection(s) truly represents Colorado’s rich diversity. Two years ago, we hired a curator for Chicano, Hispanic, and Latino heritage. Just this summer, [we] hired our first curator of Black heritage. We will be hiring a community engagement [role] around Black culture and heritage later this summer. We’ve also got a curator of LGBTQ history. That’s just the beginning. This is something we want to keep growing. It’s important to be able to understand all those perspectives and feel like you’re connected. It requires a lot of relationship building, so part of it is just taking the time. We like to say we move at the speed of community.