Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Summary

An iconic cultural institution, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Museum) seeks to ignite its community’s passion for nature and science. This mission can be seen throughout the interior exhibits of the museum, as one expects. However, two recent additions on the exterior of the building are showing how nature and science are combined to create a dynamic and educational landscape. The Museum was gifted a new bronze statue – “Snowmastodon” a life-size mastodon sculpture. They wanted to create a garden for the area surrounding the proposed location for the sculpture on the northwest corner of the building. In addition to the new sculpture, the Museum had an existing bronze sculpture – “Grizzly’s Last Stand” – that needed a permanent home. The landscape architect developed a garden concept that placed these sculptures within a landscape that portrayed the flora of the habitat of these majestic creatures. These gardens are placed within a unique threshold between Denver’s City Park and the Museum building, providing a natural and complementary landscape begging to be explored by everyone.

Narrative

Project Scope

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science envisions an “empowered community that loves, understands, and protects our natural world”.  This vision statement is exemplified by core values which include “We are curious, creative, and playful” and “We cultivate relationships with each other, diverse communities, the environment, and for our future”, among others.  This project gives form to that vision statement and those core values by celebrating historical and present-day landscapes and habitats while showcasing art and education.

“Snowmastodon” is a life-size mastodon sculpture that celebrates the incredible 2010 discovery of Pleistocene era fossils near Snowmass, CO.  Created by Kent Ullberg, one of the world’s foremost wildlife sculptors, the bronze sculpture stands more than 19’ tall.

“Grizzly’s Last Stand” is the museum’s oldest bronze sculpture, created in 1930 by Louis Paul Jonas.  The sculpture is of a grizzly bear with two cubs and was created to depict the last grizzly bear in Colorado, thought, at the time, to have been killed in the 1920s.  This sculpture had been moved to various locations since it was first gifted to the museum.

The Role of the Landscape Architect

The Museum intended to site these two sculptures in a landscape as part of the museum campus.  The museum’s most beloved interior exhibits are wildlife dioramas that depict hundreds of animal species in their native habitats.  The landscape architect’s concept for this garden was to create an interactive ‘diorama’ that encourages visitors to experience and explore the habitat of the mastodon and grizzly bear.  The garden allows for the curiosity and playfulness of all visitors as they engage and interact with the landscape and the sculptures.

The landscape architect directed the siting of each sculpture.  “Snowmastadon” is sited at the corner of the building, oriented to create a profile view of the mastodon with Denver’s skyline as a backdrop that entices visitors as they approach the main entrance to the museum.  Detailed shade studies by the landscape architect ensure that the sculptures would not be shaded by the museum building for most of the day.

Context

The Museum is integrated into a larger cultural complex for the City and County of Denver that includes the Museum, the historic City Park, and the Denver Zoo.  The gardens are located on the western side of the Museum building and provide an imaginative threshold between the formally designed City Park and the Museum building.  This landscape manifests the Museum’s mission and provides an adventurous and organic site for park and museum visitors alike, allowing them to explore natural surroundings, engage with the enormous animals, and find an outdoor respite.

The mastodon landscape has proved to be an enticing outdoor exhibit that draws visitors both before and after their Museum visit to experience the gardens and engage with the sculpture.

Special Factors

The sculptor had originally planned to have “Snowmastodon” placed on a concrete plinth.  The landscape architect was able to work with the sculptor and suggested having the piece sit on sculpted concrete in the form of a rock outcropping to create a seamless relationship between the art piece and landscape.  The landscape architect also carefully placed the trees and shrubs to ensure that the mastodon was prominently displayed, but still felt immersed in the landscape.

Additionally, the landscape architect worked with paleontologists from the museum who were involved with the Snowmastodon archeological dig. Based on their finds of pollen, tree trunks, and bits of plant matter during the dig, there was clear understanding of the landscape that the mastodon experienced.  All the plants in the mastodon’s landscape are still around today, though they occur at different locations on earth due to the changes in climate since the Pleistocene era.  Plants selected for the site were either plants that were found in the fossil dig, or are cultivars of those plant species that would better suit the hotter and drier climate of Denver.

Environmental Sensitivity and Sustainability

It was important to the landscape architect to specify materials that would feel natural in the gardens but also provide an environmental benefit.  The use of crusher fines for pavement in the areas of the art and the paths through the gardens allows for greater permeability of stormwater.  Additionally, the grading of the paths and art nodes direct surface water into the adjacent landscape areas creating a rain garden effect – while the gardens also receive irrigation, surface water is part of their watering methods.

The design preserved existing mature trees in the areas of the garden.  Not only did this help provide ‘instant’ shade for the gardens when they opened, but these mature trees provide a temperature control element for the building and the rooms inside.  Great care was given to the grading design of the gardens which avoided significant work in the driplines of the trees to help preserve their health and reduce the potential for compaction or heaving around the root systems.

The selection of plant material was not only driven by the flora from the Pleistocene era, but care was also given to provide plant species that support pollinator species.

Significance

The sculpture gardens are a unique and vibrant way for the Museum to express their mission and ideals, to introduce museum visitors to the property, and to engage imaginations before visitors set foot through the front door.  These gardens are a celebration of art, history, the environment, historic and present day flora and fauna, storytelling, and experience.  The culmination of expertise from a variety of professions creates a harmonious and symbiotic space for all to enjoy.

Plant List

Deciduous Trees

  • Allegheny Serviceberry
  • Common Hackberry
  • Skyline Honeylocust


Evergreen Trees

  • Emerald Arrow Bosnian Pine
  • Fat Albert Blue Spruce


Deciduous Shrubs

  • Dwarf Ninebark
  • Green Mound Alpine Currant
  • Magic Carpet Spirea
  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea
  • Regent Serviceberry


Evergreen Shrubs

  • Compact Oregon Grape Holly
  • Green Lane Wintercreeper
  • Emerald Gaiety Wintercreeper


Ornamental Grasses

  • Purple Maiden Grass


Perennials

  • Carolyn’s Hope Mexican Penstemon
  • Creeping Oregon Grape Holly
  • Dwarf Coreopsis
  • Gallery Blue Lupine
  • Golden Columbine
  • Massachusetts Kinnikinnick
  • Native Yarrow
  • Snow-in-Summer
  • Sweet Woodruff

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):

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