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New Old Cowtown director wants to take museum to the next level

Hugo Phan

Old Cowtown director James Quint shares his vision for the museum, talks about the challenges that he faces and shows off his favorite buildings.

When he was growing up in Missouri, James Quint spent a lot of time with his parents visiting museums and Civil War battlefields.

That early love of history has grown into a career.

Quint is the new director of Old Cowtown, the city’s 23-acre living history museum.

Before arriving in Wichita, Quint was executive director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York, dedicated to the aviation pioneer.

He also spent more than a dozen years at Historic Columbia, a museum district in South Carolina.

Quint has a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation from Southeast Missouri State University and a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Indiana-Indianapolis.

At Cowtown, he will oversee all operations, including the museum’s 45 buildings and 25,000 historical artifacts. The museum drew about 60,000 people in 2022.

As he walked the grounds of Cowtown, Quint shared his vision for the museum, some challenges there and his favorite Cowtown buildings.

Moving to Wichita

I grew up in Missouri, and I've always had a love for the Midwest, and it has a special place in my heart. When my wife and I first moved out East, we initially wanted to kind of eventually make our way back to the Midwest.

Our kids are a little bit older now and … my wife's family lives in the Kansas City area. And so we wanted to eventually come back out this way so that our kids can spend time with the family and have relatives around as they continue to grow up.

The attraction of Cowtown

The stories that are told here … just portraying Wichita in the 1870s. I think that's a really special moment. A lot of the work that I did in Columbia, South Carolina, is post-Civil War Reconstruction. And this time period aligns with that as well.

And it's just really fascinating to me about how the United States is changing so rapidly in the post-Civil War era and to have an opportunity to come here to Cowtown and help share those stories, grow that experience that people have to see both westward expansion, but then also just what's going on here in Kansas and in Wichita, in particular, is something that I thought was really fascinating.

His vision for Cowtown

For me, it's really about elevating Cowtown to the next level. There are other living history sites that are out there that people have heard and are familiar with: Greenfield Village, Old Salem, Colonial Williamsburg. And I truly believe that Cowtown can be one of those places on that level that really speaks to that time period. … That people are just saying, ‘This is a destination that we have to come to.’

And I’m not saying that Cowtown hasn't been that before or it doesn't have its attractions to it right now. But I really think we can take it to another level.

Getting people to visit Cowtown

I think the key to getting people here … is first giving them a reason to return. A lot of people came here on field trips when they are children, or they come here when they have relatives that have come into town, and they're looking for something to do. But it's what do we do to keep them coming back a couple of times over the summer, at least? Whether that's through programming and events, whether that's the new exhibits that we've created; we're always looking to do something new to give them a reason to come back to see something different that they didn't see last time they were here.

Dealing with old buildings

I think one of the biggest challenges here at Old Cowtown is the fact that there's 40-plus buildings on this site, and they all need maintenance. They all have their separate HVAC units that all want to break down at different times.

They’re historic structures, and historic structures are notorious money pits. And so it takes a lot to maintain them. But we are committed to doing it the right way, to preserving the history of these historic structures, to portraying Wichita as accurately as we can in 1870s. And that requires a lot of effort. And there's a great facilities team that helps take care of these structures.

What reenactors and interpreters add to Cowtown

One of the great things … is they can answer the questions that people have in the moment, while they're there with them. Other times people have to go home and do research, they have to get on their phone; they're driving home, they forget what they were thinking about. But in the moment when they're actually there with that person … they can ask questions, they can explore the nuances of the crafts and trades that are being depicted.

The other thing that I love about reenactors and interpreters is the ambiance that is there when they're present in those buildings. So when you go into the blacksmith shop here in town, it has a distinct smell. You see the coal being fired up by Ryan, our blacksmith. … I think an all-around sensory experience is something that's going to stay with people for a long time.

Interest in history

My parents were really good about taking me to museums, and specifically Civil War battlefields, when I was younger. So that really is what grew my interest in history.

And so when it came time for college, I wanted to continue that and find a way to be involved with history. I initially didn't think I'd want to teach in the classroom. But I really came down to just being somebody who wanted to just be around other people who are excited about history, too. And that's why I became involved in museums.

Lunch with a historical figure

I think I would love to be able to have lunch with Winston Churchill just because he's an individual that really experienced two different eras in history. … The world changed so much during his lifetime. He really was somebody who looked at the entire world with his experiences and his decisions.

He has flaws … has vices, and that, to me, just makes it more interesting to who he is as a character; he's not a perfect individual. And how do you balance his judgment in history? So being able to pick his brain about that would be something that would really be fascinating to me.

Cultural arts in Wichita

One of the things that was really appealing to me in accepting the job here at Old Cowtown as executive director is just how vibrant the cultural art scene here is in Wichita. I had no idea. And then when I came to Wichita to interview for the job, I saw how much activity is going on. And I don't think it gets enough credit for … all these things that are happening in Wichita. Not just within the museums, but just the whole cultural arts scene in the city itself.

There is so much … activity. There's so many passionate people, and I wanted to be a part of that experience and help move that forward in the years ahead.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.