How We Became Colorado

A review of Dr. William Wei's book Becoming Colorado: The Centennial State in 100 Objects.

Editor's note: This review comes to you from the Colorado Book Review. More reviews can be found at the Denver Public Library.

"Becoming Colorado: The Centennial State in 100 Objects" by Dr. William Wei

"Becoming Colorado: The Centennial State in 100 Objects" by Dr. William Wei.

William Wei, a University of Colorado–Boulder historian and a member of the State Historians Council for History Colorado (formerly the Colorado Historical Society), proposed an exhibit to History Colorado’s administration conveying the history and culture of Colorado through 100 objects. It was an idea inspired by Neil MacGregor’s 707-page A History of the World in 100 Objects, published in 2010. Related—but unmentioned by Wei—is Richard Kurin’s 762-page The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, published in 2013. Finally comes Wei’s 253-page Becoming Colorado: The Centennial State in 100 Objects, published jointly by the University Press of Colorado and History Colorado in 2021. Based on and mirroring the exhibit Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects, which opened in November 2017 at the History Colorado Center, the two are symbiotically conjoined, making impossible a review of the former without discussing the latter. While each can stand alone, neither can be appreciated to the fullest extent without the other—an impossibility for the other two 100-object books since neither was based on nor became an actual exhibit.

Zoom In set out to answer two questions: how Colorado became the place it is today, and how Coloradans became the people they currently are. Producing the exhibit took months of painstaking discussion and argument by a diverse committee, on which Wei served as a lead advisor. The committee sought to identify objects that 1) highlighted significant moments in Colorado’s history when Coloradans made choices that helped define who they are today, 2) illuminated an important aspect of Colorado’s evolving culture, or 3) brought into sharp focus a recurrent pattern in Colorado life.

Once selected, each object was accompanied in the exhibit by a 100-word label that Wei artfully expanded into a two-page illustrated essay explaining why it was chosen. In the book he went on to contextualize and humanize the object—to give it voice and meaning. He wrote brief historical overviews in the book, expanding on eight exhibit labels that identified time periods associated with the objects. Then he concluded with easily accessible online articles appearing in Colorado Heritage magazine and the Colorado Encyclopedia, further amplifying many of the hundred essays.

Both exhibit and book represent the latest iteration of reimagining Colorado’s history by the ever-evolving 143-year-old institution now known as History Colorado. Through an ongoing process of reaching out to Coloradans from border to border, attending to less visible and ignored groups, and collecting information and objects from them, the institution is increasing its ability to present a more complete and accurate history in its exhibits, publications, and programs. In showcasing the entire state’s history, it was clearly the intent of both the exhibit and book to rectify some of these longstanding oversights and mischaracterizations in the stories to be told, the choice of objects to tell them, and the manner of their presentation and interpretation to today’s heterogeneous viewers and readers. This resulted in a top down/ground up exhibit and book tracking the interactions of groups of diverse people becoming Coloradans and a rectangular patch of plains, mountains, and mesas becoming Colorado.

Implied in the exhibit, and made clear in the book, the objects and stories are but one set of selections that, at different times and under different circumstances, might have led to alternative choices and different versions of the story being told. Just how different is evident in similar efforts made over the years to honor persons and recognize significant events. The first attempt took place on the completion of the Colorado State Capitol in 1899 when sixteen Coloradans were honored in the dome’s glass portraits. By 2017, just six of those honorees went on to be featured in the Zoom In exhibit and one additional mentioned in Wei’s Becoming Colorado. The second effort encompassed an ongoing selection of some thirty leading Coloradans in the state capitol with window portraits and bronze busts; however, only four of these appeared in the exhibit with three additional mentioned in Becoming Colorado. The third effort occurred at the fiftieth anniversary of the state capitol’s completion in 1899 by way of a January 1950 article by Levette J. Davidson in The Colorado Magazine speculating on who might be included in an imagined new capitol gallery. Of some twenty-seven persons proposed in 1950, just two are featured in Zoom In and another six mentioned in Becoming Colorado. In sum, many familiar figures in Colorado’s history do not appear in the 2017 iterations, in part to make way for the more inclusive story being presented.

Because 100-object books and exhibits are notoriously difficult to write (“impossible” in the judgment of Neil MacGregor and “a fool’s errand for universal approval” according to Kurin), it is not unexpected that some significant topics were omitted or underrepresented. Of the half dozen or so that immediately come to mind, the most significant would seem to be public education, which has enabled the development and enrichment of so many (a thought that also evoked my suggestion for a History Colorado–requested 101st object, the humble but ubiquitous school bell).

Colorado’s story is big, complicated, and evolving. Viewed ideographically, in the coming together of a succession of various peoples living as Coloradans within the physical features of the land and environment—and making and shaping Colorado’s history as they went—the result might well be expressed metaphorically by Object 43 in the exhibit, Florence Bell’s crazy quilt, beautiful and meaningful in its very serendipity. Regardless, neither the exhibit nor the book could tell it all, nor could they even do so together. But, if anyone reading the book is motivated to see the objects, or, experiencing the real objects, is moved to read more about them and about Colorado’s fascinating history (including all those people and events left out of the exhibit), the exhibit and book will have more than accomplished their purposes.