Mining museum chief emphasizes mix of art, heritage

The Western Museum of Mining and Industry is one of the few privately funded history museums in the nation. David Carroll, who has a master’s in arts administration, has been executive director since 2005. Under his leadership, revenue has increased 86 percent and total visitation increased 27 percent.

What’s new at the museum?

Most people probably know us for our school tours. We typically see about 8,000 school kids per year; we also have four family-day programs each year. But for our Heritage Lecture Series, we are now integrating themes between visiting artists and our exhibits.

For instance, on July 15, we’ll have a lecture about the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, from Canadian journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk. It ties in with an exhibit we just completed, which explores the history of steam boilers from the past — as we look at the past and future of energy sources.

How did the economic downturn affect operations?

Well, I have to say, surprisingly, we were not as affected as others. 2009 was one of our best years, yet. We had a 20 percent increase in individual donors, and an 18 percent increase in attendance, partly as a result of people doing more “staycations” and using local museums and cultural institutions as opposed to taking trips to faraway places.

Who are your major supporters?

We have support from mining companies. Many people may not realize that 20 percent of our individual support comes from outside Colorado and 40 percent comes from outside Colorado Springs.

What do you feel is the museum’s role in the community?

My background has been in a variety of museums in both the art and history sectors. I’ve come to the philosophy that museums are most effective when they provide programming that stimulates intellectual growth and provides empathy for other ideas and other people. Twice a year we have new exhibits. We ask artists to come in and look at a subject from a different angle.

For September, we’ve invited Margaret Whiting. She’s a sculptor who combines discarded law books with natural objects, such as fossils and leaves, to get people to explore the issues of natural law versus manmade law, and whether they are working together or against each other.

We’ll have an exhibit — she’ll be at the grand opening — that looks back at the mining laws of 1872 and how they affect the way we mine today.

How do you prevent people from stealing items on exhibit at the museum?

The serious part of the answer is that we do have 24-hour security. People are on-site all the time. But if you’ve ever been to our museum, you would know that many of our items are very heavy. The 1895 Corliss steam engine weighs 37 tons — so it’s not easily picked up and taken away.