Lover of history looks to the future at Animas Museum

Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018 8:04 PM
Jeff Hutchinson, hired this summer as the Animas Museum’s executive director sits on Thursday in a classroom at the museum.
Jeff Hutchinson, hired this summer as the Animas Museum’s executive director, welcomes visitors on Thursday to the museum.

The Animas Museum may be a place that preserves and promotes education about the past, but with its new executive director, the local history museum hopes to carve out a busier future.

Over the summer, Jeff Hutchinson was hired as the Animas Museum’s executive director. Since, the 57-year-old Colorado native is catching up on the Southwest’s unique history, and planning for the museum’s future.

“I walked into a wonderful situation,” Hutchinson said.

The Animas Museum, founded in the early 1970s, is owned and operated by the La Plata County Historical Society and is home to a number of historical resources, such as a research library and photo archives.

The museum is located within the converted 1904 Animas City School building in north Durango, 3065 West Second Ave., and gets about 5,000 people through its doors every year.

“The goal from the beginning ... was to secure a museum facility in order to preserve the history of the area by building collections of ‘artifacts’ and offering educational programs like museum exhibits and a variety of educational programs to people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Robert McDaniel, a founder of the museum.

Kathy McKenzie, president of the board of directors for the Animas Museum, said Hutchinson’s experience and love of Colorado history made him a top candidate for the job. The museum had been without a director for 18 months.

“It was an easy hire for us,” McKenzie said. “He had what we were really looking for.”

Hutchinson’s forefathers were among the first pioneers to brave the journey west and settle in Colorado, he said. His cousins still run the centennial ranch, the Hutchinson homestead and give house tours in Salida.

“That’s where I have my roots,” he said.

But Hutchinson’s father broke from the ranching lifestyle, became a professor of art history and moved the family to Texas in the mid-1970s. Hutchinson, himself, got a degree in art history, architecture and recreation.

After working for a few advertising and architecture firms, Hutchinson from 1987 to 2002 became superintendent of the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site, an old sugar cane plantation with a dark history in West Columbia, Texas.

In 2002, Hutchinson left the state park service and took on a job at the local newspaper – owned and operated by his wife, Becky – focusing on graphics, artwork and the advertising side of the news business.

After 15 years pushing out the news, and with their four children now adults, the couple looked for the next step in life. Having visited Durango in the past, the couple took a leap and moved here in January.

“I wanted to get back to my roots in Colorado,” he said. “So in a way, I’m coming back home.”

Duane Smith, a local historian and Fort Lewis College history professor emeritus, said history buffs in Durango are lucky with two great resource centers: The Animas Museum and Center of Southwest Studies.

Smith said the Animas Museum is great for the public to have easy access to old newspaper articles, relics and other items of interest, with a focus on the history of Durango.

Center of Southwest Studies is good for a deeper dive into historical topics around the Four Corners, its archaeology, anthropology, heritage and environment.

“A town of our size is fortunate to have two places of that size and quality,” Smith said. “Anyone doing research here in Durango and Southwest Colorado ought to visit both of them.”

Shelby Tisdale, director of Center for Southwest Studies, said the two centers have a long history of working well together.

“Our heritage in this whole area is so rich and interesting, with the ancestral Puebloans, the mining, ranching and the train,” she said. “Between the two (centers), we just have vast archival collections available to the public.”

One of Hutchinson’s main goals is to get the Animas Museum more involved in the community, by hosting a range of special events, living history programs, historic tours, murder mystery tours and more exhibits.

It’s a lot of what the museum has been doing, but already, Hutchinson and a loyal group of staff and volunteers have drummed up 20 new ideas.

“Our biggest thing is we’d like to see more awareness in the community to know what a real gem, and that’s not our term, that people don’t realize is in our community,” McKenzie said.

When he’s not steeped in history books, Hutchinson enjoys two activities appreciated by many Durangoans: fly-fishing and kayaking in the mountains.

“We came here for the recreation, art and history, and Durango is great for all those things,” Hutchinson said. “I have a passion for it, so I feel in tune with it. I can’t see why anyone else wouldn’t.”