History Colorado’s Backstory Exhibit: A New Look at Old Colorado

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Sydney Hodgson | @SydneyLHodgson

For the next year, the beloved 7th floor western art gallery at the Denver Art Museum will be closed for renovations, rendering this collection unavailable to the public. Enter History Colorado’s newest exhibit: Backstory: Western American Art in Context. The Denver Art Museum has collaborated with History Colorado Center to display pieces from it’s Western collection that would otherwise be unavailable during the museum’s renovations, alongside some outstanding historical artifacts from History Colorado’s extensive collection. This is the first time that the two museums have collaborated on a project of this scale.

The vision behind this groundbreaking exhibit is to pair 50 classic pieces of Western art with historical artifacts that offer additional context. Here at The Broadview Denver, we were intrigued by the idea of pairing artifacts alongside more traditional artistic pieces and interested in the stories and portraits of women that could come from this. Including women’s voices in history and in historical exhibits often requires creativity and the use of non-traditional objects.

With my curiosity and drive to find out more about women in the western history leading the way, I decided to check it out and learn more. I spoke with Alisa DiGiacomo, Senior Curator of Artifacts at History Colorado on her work with the exhibit and its representation of women.  

What was your thought process behind picking the artifacts that are showcased?

The artifacts in the exhibit were selected to give greater context to the art exhibited.  Once the team decided to exhibit DAM paintings and sculptures by primarily Euro-American artists from the east, we knew that we needed to represent more diverse perspectives, voices and experiences in the exhibit.  We also decided not to add other paintings or sculptures from the History Colorado collection, but instead chose to find artifacts and stories connected to Colorado that complimented the DAM art and offered visitors a wider view of the west.  While the DAM painting and sculptures appear documentary in nature, it is important to note that they are also artistic interpretations of what each artist saw and or experienced and then interpreted.  

The artifacts in the exhibit (including other art forms such as photography, needle arts, woodworking, lithography, ceramics and industrial design, to name a few), are purposefully exhibited near certain paintings and sculptures, and offer visitors additional historical context, personal stories and diverse social and economic experiences of people living in the west, including those affected by eastern perceptions and migration west.  

What makes the selected artifacts important?

No paintings or sculptures in the exhibit are the work of female artists.  This is something we worked to address from the beginning of the exhibit planning phase.  To add female voices to the exhibit, we purposefully added artifacts with strong visual qualities, good provenance and interesting stories.  These stories represent the female experience in the west, including women’s contributions to the development of this area.  The exhibit opens with Mesa Verde ceramics and dress made from trade cloth, shells and ribbons.  All made by American Indian women, these artifacts represent American Indian presence in the west long before European and Euro-American exploration and settlement.  The dress is also a beautiful example of trade in the west, cultural exchange and women’s roles in families and their communities, and as artists.  Another artifact in the exhibit that speaks to women’s experiences in the west is a beautiful quilt made by a woman from the east with her family, homesteading in Colorado in the late 1890s.  The quilt top was part of her hope chest.  It was quilted after her marriage and used on the family farm in Byers, Colorado.  Backstory also includes gloves worn by Goldie Cameron (a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show).  Part of her wedding outfit, the gloves were made by fellow performers of the Sioux tribe.  The gloves, representing Goldie, are a great example of non-traditional and surprising roles of women in the west.

What is the connection between artifacts like the ones you've mentioned and the voices of women or other groups that may be underrepresented throughout history? What can we learn from this? 

The content of Backstory is layered for a variety of reasons including the need to give a broader view of experiences in the west; not just the view of Euro-American male artists.  In addition to women’s voices, artifacts were selected to represent American Indians, Hispanic settlers and the working class to name a few.  Exploration and settlement of the west is a complex subject, the diversity of art, artifacts, stories and voices helps convey this complexity in a way that encourages visitors to be curious.  Our team also sought to group items in a complementary way.  We were very mindful to acknowledge both the beauty and hardship of the west.  What we did not want to do was focus on conflict but instead present opportunities for visitors to make connections, find commonality and understand better the complexity of the west in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.  Overall we worked for rich content that was also visitor friendly.

Conversely, what can this exhibit teach us about the voices of those who typically are represented? 

This exhibit helps visitors better understand how and why artists in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries focused on the west, as well as, the impact of their imagery on people’s perceptions about the west, perceptions still present today.  The exhibit also offers insight into the artist process of the time and help explains their place in the art world and society.  The exhibit also presents opportunities for questioning assumptions often made about the artists and their works.  For example many viewed and still view the paintings and sculptures as documentary; although they are often documentary in nature, the exhibit works to make the point that they are still interpretations of the artist.  

As a historian and curator, how do you think of "women of the west" throughout history? Are there any common themes, sentiments or images that come to mind? 

Traditionally historians have focused on the “big” events, famous and infamous.  Today more historians, including myself, are interested in documenting, examining and exploring women’s history, along with a variety of other subjects, including the working class and underrepresented communities.  As a curator at History Colorado my approach to women’s history in the west and other subjects often begins with a theme, subject or artifact(s) in the collection.  In the case of artifacts, a piece will catch my eye and from there I will look for clues and facts to find a story; generally one that is moving, meaningful and connects with events and people in the present.   A great example of this is a quilt in the History Colorado collection that I researched years ago.  A beautiful crazy quilt from the 1890s, I was curious to know more about it. After a good deal of research I found out that it was made in Colorado by a former slave name Florence Bell.  Her husband John worked as a janitor at the Colorado State Capitol and in 1904 he donated her quilt to History Colorado.  The quilt was sent to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.   Ultimately this artifact could speak to slavery, migration from east to west, the Civil War, World’s Fairs, women’s history, African American history, quilting patterns, materials and traditions.  History Colorado is also fortunate to have photographs of both John and Florence Bell.

As for common themes, sentiments or images tied to women and their role and contributions to the West, traditionally women’s history has been told through photos and artifacts including clothing (often wedding dresses), furniture and household goods and products.  Often there are general stories of what life was like for women in a certain period.  In some cases more personal stories exist (told through diaries, letters and family records) but in-depth details about women’s lives are rarer. Like other museum collections, History Colorado’s collection has gaps including multiple strong examples of women in business and leadership roles outside the home, and as part of the working class.  That said, History Colorado has a number of great examples of female artists like Emma Richardson Cherry and Henrietta Bromwell and strong collections that tell the story of well known figures such as Baby Doe Tabor, Molly Brown, and Mamie Dowd Eisenhower.  Also, there are many stories still to be uncovered from the collection and documented in partnership with the public.  

Is there anything that you would like people keep in mind when they visit the exhibit? 

Yes. I’d like for visitors to explore their own ideas about the west when they visit the exhibit. I hope they consider their own history in this place we call home, and that they see connections with the past and relevance of the content in the present.  

I also hope that people recognize the collaborative nature of the exhibit.  In addition to the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science lent items to the exhibit.  Collaboration includes the generosity of the public, who over time have donated a majority of the material in our permanent collection, which now numbers in the millions.  Many artifacts in the exhibit have been in our collection for a long time, however, some are more recent acquisitions and have never been on exhibit before.  I would also like to mention that we are always learning more about what we have (and sometimes what we don’t have, but should).  Recently on a tour of the exhibit someone mentioned that they knew a descendant of an individual named in the exhibit. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to visit with this family in the future.   

Finally, the artifacts in the exhibit as part of the History Colorado collection are held in trust for the people of Colorado.  At History Colorado we are always working to share the collection—and Colorado’s history—through a variety of exhibits, research resources, education programs, our Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, the State Historic Fund, our Regional Museums and our collections online.  

Backstory runs March 18, 2017 - February 11, 2018 at The History Colorado Center.