Keeping heritage alive: Tread of Pioneers director celebrates 20 years at the museum
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Candice Bannister was a little girl, growing up in Kentucky, her grandmother owned an antiques business, and it was there, as she wandered through those collections, that her fascination with history began.
“It was just really apparent to me early on that these are things that hold the memories of people that are no longer here,” Bannister said, “and they just seemed valuable and meaningful.”
That passion led Bannister to where she is today — celebrating 20 years at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
“I didn’t know that this was her 20th year until recently,” said Laurie Kuelthau, a museum board member and volunteer. “She has so much enthusiasm and knowledge … and to be pushing forward and innovating 20 years on is amazing.”
Bannister found her way to Colorado through multiple trips out west while studying psychology and anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“I loved the West, so I knew I wanted to live out here,” Bannister said.
A friend offered her and a friend the chance to live in a condo they owned in Steamboat Springs for a couple weeks to see what they thought, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bannister began working with the U.S. Forest Service leading different archeological tours and programs. This led to different partnerships with local nonprofits, including her involvement with a children’s program through Yampatika and the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
“We were teaching kids about local history,” Bannister said. “So, when the curator position at the museum opened up, the director at the time was familiar with me through the partnership program that I had done with her.”
In 2000, after three years of living in Steamboat, Bannister began working at the museum as a part-time curator and assistant director.
“At that time, they had two other part-time staff besides the full-time director, and they had both left,” Bannister said. “It was really just the director and me, part time, and a core of volunteers, and in those days, (the museum) barely resembled the museum we are today.”
Around 2003, Bannister did a brief stint as interim director before accepting the executive director position. Bannister immediately set her sights on growing the museum.
The first step involved hiring a full-time curator.
“I was the first curator at the Tread to work with full-time status,” said Katie Adams, who was hired as museum curator in 2006. “This has really allowed the museum’s collection management program to grow and become the professional facility and organization that it is today.”
In 2013, Bannister’s second goal of expanding exhibits and creating a museum-quality collections care facility was realized. After that, she felt it was time to turn her focus toward the community.
“We really had to get the museum operation and the exhibits and the collections — those were our first priorities … and once all of that was elevated, we really focused our efforts on providing the best services and activities to the community that we can,” Bannister explained.
When she first started at the museum, there were very few programs and events, but now under Bannister’s tenure, the Tread of Pioneers hosts over 100 a year with three-and-a-half staff members.
“We’re small but mighty,” Bannister said.
“Museum directors are often just focused on the museum,” said Jim DeFrancia, a Tread of Pioneers Museum board member. “They kind of don’t get out of their bubble and look at the whole context of history in the broader sense of the community history … but she does.”
The museum’s programming has grown from brown bag lunches to happy hours, historic walking tours and more, and one of Bannister’s proudest achievements are the programs and events that deepen the community’s connection to the Ute Tribe.
“When I was early in my career, I was looking for a way that our community and the Ute Tribe could connect,” Bannister said. “Then it dawned on me — this is my role, this is the museum’s role to make this connection.”
Her vision eventually developed into the Ute Indian Pow Wow Dance Performance and Presentation. The tribe shares its culture with the community through dance, music and regalia and then has the chance to see how the Utes are represented in Routt County’s history by touring the museum and areas of the county itself, where their ancestors lived.
“Giving them an opportunity to come back to this area and be invited with open arms by the museum and by the town is just a really important thing,” Bannister said.
Bannister also has looked for ways the museum can play a role in the larger discussion of heritage and historical preservation within the community.
“When the Steamboat Springs Arts Council began to pursue the certification from the state for the town to become a creative district, I reached out to Candice, knowing what a fierce advocate she is for heritage,” said Kim Keith, executive director of Steamboat Creates, formerly known as the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.
“I think people that visit Steamboat and live here, they want to know about the history. They can tell that this place is steeped in history, and I think the more people know, the more that they appreciate the place they live and visit,” Bannister said. “Keeping heritage sitting at all of the tables and giving heritage a voice in the community — whether it be community planning, whether it be tourism, whether it be marketing — is relevant.”
Bannister also has dedicated herself to creating a work environment where museum staff can flourish.
“Her focus has always been on staff support, whether it be support of personal challenges, like my maternity and child cared needs, or for support with professional growth and learning resources and opportunities,” Adams said.
Past performance may be important when reflecting back on 20 years worth of work at one organization, but Bannister is just as focused on the future. In the long term, she wants to continue to deepen the town’s connection to the Ute tribe, expand public access to digital archives and collect artifacts and oral histories from older generations before they’re gone.
But her ultimate goal is to make history fun and keep the museum available for generations to come.
“This is not a one-woman show at all, and I really feel like the growth of the museum is tied to a long history of volunteers, board members, donors, members and the community, who have believed in the heritage, who are passionate about the heritage, who support the museum, who support me,” Bannister said. “And my incredible staff — I’ve been really lucky and incredibly blessed with an incredible staff. It really has been a team effort.
“I think that’s my big takeaway with all of this — with any one of those pieces missing, I don’t think we would be where we are today.”
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