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Museums have long been viewed as “cabinets of wonders,” keepers of some of the most beautiful, perplexing, and challenging masterpieces ever created. They also have a complicated history of acquiring, displaying, and holding stolen art and artifacts. In the 21st century, museums have evolved into educational centers—interactive venues that don’t shy away from complex subjects, where people of all ages not only view art but learn from it.
The Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) $175 million makeover reimagines many things. The north side campus, for instance, features a brand-new, glass-walled Sie Welcome Center. The galleries in the Martin Building (formerly known as the North or Ponti Building), which houses seven floors of the museum’s permanent collection, were all overhauled. A new, dedicated space for architecture and design was added, as well as labels written for kids to help engage them throughout the venue. But this all pales in comparison to how DAM is leaning into inclusivity and a more modern identity.
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“Museums are such an important, interactive place, with education programs, social programs. They’re really a social connector within the community,” says DAM director Christoph Heinrich. “With our collections, we can give an idea of the world, of different cultures, of different ways of thinking. Never has it been more important in our times to open your mind and to realize a new way of thinking.”
Throughout the updated north campus, visitors will notice a commitment to inclusive storytelling, largely by letting creators share their own stories and histories through videos and text. “I think that’s a different approach,” Heinrich says. “It is an approach that does not just present [a piece of] beadwork and say, ‘This is so beautiful and so intricately done,’ but really tells the story of the people and what it was for and why they used certain materials.”
This is particularly evident in the Indigenous Arts of North America gallery on the third floor, where historical and contemporary works live side by side and visitors can read labels by Indigenous individuals and hear from the artists themselves in short video clips. The latter were filmed by Steven Yazzie, a multidisciplinary artist and citizen of the Navajo Nation who also sits on the museum’s Indigenous Community Advisory Council.
“We’re able to have our visitors connect directly with artists and hear the artists’ firsthand accounts of what they’re trying to convey in their art and the themes that are important to them,” says John Lukavic, curator of Native Arts. “It is including Indigenous voices. It is centering Indigenous perspectives on social justice issues … we’re able to make our visitors aware of these issues impacting Indigenous communities, as well as celebrating the successes and acknowledging the past and traumas.”
To that end, a reflection space, lined with excerpts from a poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was created to give people a quiet space to think.
There is also a gallery called “Home/Land” where the DAM acknowledges that it sits on the land of the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Ute people. Art from these area nations and interviews with tribal members round out the space, as does a studio dedicated to the DAM’s Native Arts artist-in-residence program.
You’ll notice the thread connecting history to today unfurl out in other spaces, too, like the contemporary section of the Western American Art gallery, where stunning works by artists such as Deborah Orapallo and Ed Mell, among others, contrast the earlier, romanticized, stereotyped, non-Native works on display. In the Northwest Coast and Alaska Native gallery, a 20th-century welcome post from an Indigenous Canadian tribe is paired with a contemporary, large-scale glass commission and a video focusing on how land rights issues still plague Indigenous communities.
“The idea was to make it clear that these are ongoing traditions,” Heinrich says. “We’re not dealing with extinct peoples here. We are presenting tribes that have a certain tradition and culture that is still alive.”
Admission is free for all visitors on Sunday, October 24. Advance tickets are “sold” out, but a limited number will be available at the welcome desk, pending capacity limitations. After that, the museum will revert to its timed-entry ticketing system; tickets are $8 to $13, and youth 18 and younger get in free.