Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Earlier this year, staff of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) learned that Jesse D. Figgins, who served the Museum as the first professional director from 1910 to 1935, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“We want to publicly acknowledge this abhorrent history as a part of our past that influences the operations of the Museum. For many years, we have been actively working to change systems and practices to make the Museum a more equitable organization,” said current President and CEO George Sparks in a statement in May. Sparks spoke to The Denver Post about the Museum’s history with the KKK in June.

Creating a More Inclusive Museum

Recognizing that much of the Museum’s community outreach has been transactional, early inclusion efforts included a focus on building and nurturing ongoing, long-term relationships with community members – going beyond one-time connections. Today, these ongoing relationships are still a focus and becoming more centralized in planning for the future. For an example, visit to see how the Museum is developing its newest experience alongside community members.

Even prior to this revelation, the Museum had been on a mission to examine and implement ways to increase diversity, equity and inclusion – both internally and externally. Sparks, who has been involved in Prosper CO since its inception, said the most important thing he did when starting this work was to begin focusing on setting aside his own personal belief structure and listen.

In addition to examining personal biases, Sparks recognizes there is work to be done at the organizational level. Increasing diversity, accessibility, inclusivity and equity for the Museum means working toward a culture that embraces life-long learning, conducts critical reflection to inform adjustments that are needed to address power imbalances and inequitable practices, and invites everyone the Museum touches (staff, vendors, guests, neighbors) to hold it accountable.

Understanding that this journey is unending is second only in importance to listening. As a result of these two beliefs, early changes the Museum made were to add wayfinding and interpretation signs in Spanish and to craft an inclusivity statement. The inclusivity statement is a signal to current and prospective employees that the Museum is a place where employees can bring their whole selves to work and celebrate the many perspectives that help make the Museum a relevant and trusted community resource for fun as well as for information.

The Museum has also changed the way it shares staff contributions and images to avoid tokenizing or emotionally harming employees. Now, the Museum uses the FRIES model for consent with any staff member that is featured. That means the person’s consent is: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific.

Examples of work in progress include a statement to formally acknowledge the Native lands where the Museum is located and adding information within an exhibit to recognize the contributions George McJunkin made to the field of archaeology. McJunkin was a formerly enslaved person, a cowboy and a historian among other identities, who discovered the Folsom Site in New Mexico. This discovery confirmed the presence of humans in the last ice age, thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Ensuring the Museum’s Staff Reflects Denver’s Diversity

The Museum is also working to diversity its staff so that employees reflect the overall demographics of the Denver metro area.

To achieve this, the Museum is first and foremost listening, encouraging conversations across the Museum about how it can move toward greater inclusivity and equity, and forming affinity groups such as LGBTQ and accessibility teams that influence the organization. Those influences range from hosting monthly conversations about social justice issues for Museum staff and conducting an inventory of restrooms to identify single-occupant amenities and determine the best way to label those facilities for low-sensory events aimed at neurodiverse audiences and their families.

George Sparks’ Recommended Reads:

Anthro Vision by Gillian Tett and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Additionally, the Museum has changed the way it hires people – from utilizing panels whose membership represents not only diversity across job functions, but also diversity among lived experiences, to partnering with local organizations such as a small, black-owned business and Colorado Inclusive Economy to recruit a new vice president of development.

“Developing deep relationships in the community has been really, really helpful in attracting different pools of candidates for our open positions for everything from a new vice president to our outreach and custodial teams, not to mention we will always benefit from strong accountability partners in this work,” remarked Sparks.

While the work to attract and retain a staff that reflects the demographics of the surrounding community is ongoing, the team’s efforts are showing improvement. About 30% of the Museum’s staff are considered ethnically and racially diverse. Since hiring has begun again following the pandemic, 40% of new hires have been diverse in terms of ethnicity and race. The Museum is focusing on improving the diversity of staff in leadership positions and expanding the definition of diversity to include a variety of intersections of identities beyond race and ethnicity.

The Museum is also working to ensure new hires feel welcome and valued when they join the team.

The team recently hired a bilingual human resources specialist so that new hire orientation and benefits explanations can be conducted in Spanish as well as English. Clear, understandable communication from day one on the job goes a long way toward creating a welcoming environment for all employees.

Another way the Museum works to help employees feel included and valued is to send out correspondence in both English and Spanish at the same time, which is done with support from a professional translation firm and several bilingual staff members whose job descriptions include bilingual communication. A second strategy has been to identify existing staff with translation and interpretation skills and compensate them for using those skills on behalf of the Museum.

The Museum is a Place for All Coloradans

And finally, the Museum is listening. It is conducting a communication needs assessment to determine how to continue evolving toward a more equitable organization in terms of language accessibility. The very exercise of conducting a listening tour to hear how folks are feeling about processes now and ask them to envision their perfect systems is incredibly valuable. Through this exercise, employees feel heard and empowered and the Museum is gathering valuable insights that will help it continue to grow and feel more welcoming and inclusive to staff and guests alike.

“The Museum is here because we have been entrusted with the people of Colorado’s artifacts and historical records. In order to be the best stewards of that trust, we must do everything we can to prioritize equity to be the Museum our community needs and expects us to be; a museum that not only welcomes, but reflects its communities,” added Sparks.