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Jeffrey Richardson follows new opportunity in home state

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FARMINGTON — Jeffrey Richardson, the curator at the Farmington Museum, doesn't hide his desire to someday lead his own museum. It's a goal he's had in mind since he entered the field years ago as a mailroom employee at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Richardson worked his way up at that institution, eventually becoming the curator of Western history. His move to Farmington in late 2015 represented another step up, as Richardson had the opportunity to oversee programming and exhibitions for not just one museum, but all the institutions in the Farmington Museum system.

An even better opportunity has come his way now. Richardson will be leaving his post in Farmington on July 20 to take over as the director of operations at the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, part of the metropolitan Atlanta area.

"It's more outside the curatorial realm and more into management and operations," Richardson said, describing his new job.

Richardson said he has had plenty of experience in the former and little in the latter, and that partly explains why the new job appealed to him. Running a museum, he said, is about much more than simply organizing exhibitions or programming — it's about managing people, budgets and buildings. He hopes the new job, with its emphasis on administrative responsibilities, will position him to oversee his own institution someday.

"I'll have the opportunity to look at different areas of operation," he said.

In the meantime, Richardson is excited about going to work for a new museum. The facility is 50,000 square feet and has more than 1,000 items on display. Its main attraction is a restored 19th century locomotive called the General, famous for its role in the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, one of the more entertaining chapters to emerge from the early days of the Civil War.

The incident began when a group of Union spies ventured into Big Shanty, Georgia (now called Kennesaw), and stole the locomotive. Their aim was to drive it to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and destroy as much railroad and telegraph line as they could along the way.

They advanced approximately 80 miles toward their goal before being overtaken by Confederate troops. Some of the raiders fled on foot and escaped, but others were captured and hanged as spies. Those who met their demise later were honored as the nation's first Medal of Honor winners, and their awards are on display as part of the museum's exhibition on the chase.

Richardson emphasized that the museum bills itself as an inclusive and committed history institution that emphasizes open dialog and education. It is a member of the prestigious Smithsonian Affiliations organization, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

More: Farmington Museum lecture will focus on myths surrounding Jesse James

The new job also appealed to him for personal reasons, Richardson said, explaining that his brother lives only minutes away from the museum and his parents are nearby. Richardson grew up in southeast Georgia, leaving only after he finished graduate school and embarked on his career. So the area is home to him.

"It's rare when you get not just the professional but the personal combination, as well," he said.

Richardson said he enjoyed his time in Farmington, particularly the chance to develop exhibitions and programming for the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, the E3 Children's Museum & Science Center, the Riverside Nature Center and the Museum of Navajo Art & Culture. Each of those institutions catered to its own market, he said, and Richardson appreciated the professional variety they presented to him.

But the Farmington Museum was his main point of focus, and Richardson said the highlights of his tenure here include overseeing exhibitions on Ansel Adams and shipwrecked sea vessels, and shows featuring the work of important local artists, such as its current display, "Adventures in Wood: Creative Craftsmanship by Steven Barr."

More: 'Adventures in Wood' exhibition opens this weekend at Farmington Museum

"I think we've really been able to elevate the exhibits we've done here, especially the ones we do in house," Richardson said, adding that the Farmington Museum also has forged some good relationships in that time with other institutions in the state and local organizations.

"For a museum of this size, we do a lot of exhibitions," he said. "That's been something that was very rewarding."

Richardson's crowning achievement during his time in Farmington was his popular Curator's Choice Lecture Series, which focused on separating truth from legend in regard to some of the better-known figures or incidents in the history of the American West, including Buffalo Bill, Jesse James and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The quarterly lectures were so well attended that they frequently filled the museum meeting room to capacity, leaving many of those who attended to stand.

"It's been very rewarding," Richardson said, noting the lectures often attracted an audience of more than 100 people. "That's been really great to get that response."

Richardson hopes to adapt the series to Civil War history in his new position. But he said he will always regard this series with a good deal of fondness.

"That's something I think I'm going to miss a great deal," he said. "That lecture series was something that holds a special place in my heart."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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