Museums have changed. They are no longer the artifact-filled dwellings of dust from our youth. Not only has the content of museums changed, but the architecture that protects them has altered drastically as well.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a good example. Inspired by a Scottish castle and the ancient ruins of the Southwest, it is nestled in a cliff overlooking the Jackson National Elk Refuge. The 51,000-square-foot red Arizona sandstone structure blends naturally into what resembles just another rock outcropping.
With that much footage, you must give some real time to exploring not only its outside collection of sculptures, but its 14 galleries. The temporary exhibits and permanent collections from American tribes and contemporary European and American masters focus on wildlife, nature and the excitement of the American West.
Youngsters who teethed on technology are fascinated by the interactive Children’s Discovery Gallery. They can create art in the Artist’s Studio, enjoy the Puppet Theatre, or read and dream in the Reading Nook. During my visit in June, Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s books on common pets and mythical beasts, as well as his early draft of Where the Wild Things Are, were on display.
Adults can participate in educational programs with workshops, seminars, naturalist lectures and research. The Library and Archives section provides a vast amount of material, from drawings and maps to video and laser disc recordings.
Each gallery is unique. John Clymer’s entire studio, incorporated into the museum, shows where and how this Saturday Evening Post illustrator turned artist painted his historical frontier scenes. The American Bison Gallery presents 17th, 18th, and 19th century European, American and Native American artwork of bison and man. Other collections include the works of John J. Audubon, Georgia O’Keeffe and Carl Rungius.
Originally opened in 1987, the museum quickly outgrew its space and by 1994 moved into this facility with a conference room, a 200-seat auditorium, café, lounge, administrative space, library and archives, plus room for future expansion. Two classrooms are available for educational programs in art appreciation, art and American history, natural science and creative writing.
Buffalo Bill’s Amazing Life
Equally modern is a cluster of museums that lie within the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. You can visit Cody for many reasons, but you will want to stay because the town is that interesting.
I have never had an experience like the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. A bronze sculpture of Buffalo Bill, dressed in attire for his Wild West Show, greets you outside the front door, and inside you will find seven acres of exhibits that will amaze you.
Born in Iowa in 1846, William F. Cody experienced the Old West as few people have. His skill as a buffalo hunter supplying buffalo meat to the work gangs building the transcontinental railroad gained him the nickname of “Buffalo Bill.” He became many things to many people. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor fighting in the Indian Wars. He was a civilian scout for the U. S. Army, cattle herder, gold miner, Pony Express rider, prospector, bullwhacker, trapper and guide.
In 1883, he became a producer and showman when he created “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” which included bronco riding, stagecoach robberies, the reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and sharp-shooting demonstrations. For the next 30 years, his considerable entourage educated and entertained the United States and Europe about the myth and the might of the great American West.
Buffalo Bill founded Cody, Wyoming, in 1896. Despite his years of fighting and scouting, he eventually became a friend to the American Indians, saying, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.” And despite his reputation for killing countless buffalo, he became in his later years an advocate of game preserves and hunting-season limits. But what really surprised this writer was his push for women’s rights. He said over a hundred years ago, “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”
Buffalo Bill died in 1917 and was buried in the Rocky Mountains near Denver. You will discover much more about William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the Buffalo Bill and the American West Museum, one of the five major museums within the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
The Plains Indian Museum has life-sized horses (and dogs) pulling their rider’s belongings. At the push of a button, a hide or pole tipi lights up or a warrior on a cliff behind it relates a dramatic story. This section reveals the equipment and trappings of the everyday existence of the Plains tribes, their art, ceremonial items, beadwork, dress and weaponry. The Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone and Sioux tribes used storytelling to pass their history about the land, adversity, renewal and celebration from generation to generation.
Many impressive sculptures, including one of Washakie, chief of the Eastern Shoshone, and others of bison, elk, moose and bear can be found in the Sculpture Garden. I was most impressed by the colorful Sacajawea with “Little Pomp” strapped to her back. The path through the garden led to Buffalo Bill’s two-story boyhood home, moved four times between Iowa and its final stop here.
The Cody Firearms Museum offers the Winchester collection and traces firearm technology from the early 16th century to the present. It is the world’s largest firearm collection, with examples ranging from centuries-old projectile arms, flintlocks and Gatling guns to modern sport rifles. The museum also illustrates production innovations in firearms manufacturing and modern business competition.
“Buffalo Bill ‘the Scout,’” Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s depiction of Buffalo Bill signaling the discovery of enemy tracks, can be seen through the window of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art or from the garden. This collection of paintings, sculptures and prints had history for me. Although the Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell works that I fell in love with were not in this particular building, my husband and I stopped at the (then) Buffalo Bill Museum while we were on our honeymoon from Michigan in 1956. At 17, I had never seen nor heard of them before. Fast forward to June 2010. Wow! Obviously this museum is far more comprehensive and delightful these many years later. It was intriguing to watch a young teen-ager interacting via electronics, grabbing pieces of trees or meadows or mountains or clouds or creatures, thereby creating his own unique modern work of art.
If you’ve ever wanted to see if you are related to the world’s most famous cowboy, the center’s McCracken Research Library will help you find that connection if it exists. The library specializes in Cody family history and has an extensive descendent list. It also has thousands of books, periodicals, historic photographs and information on microfilm and whatever else you might require for research, along with the original writings and personal papers of historically important people. The library has recently started collecting cowboy songs and range ballads.
The Draper Museum of Natural History experience is harder to explain. The museum has three interconnected galleries: Expedition Trailhead, Alpine-to-Plains Trail, and Seasons of Discovery. A naturalist’s study and a field station classroom are housed in two rustic cabins, providing places to discover the how and the why of exploring nature. Maps, computers and pullout drawers assist your curiosity in geological exploration.
As you enter the grand rotunda and the beginning of the Alpine-to-Plains Trail, a colorful 30-foot-diameter tile mosaic map presents an extraordinary perspective of the Greater Yellowstone region.
Although you are starting from only two floors above, hiking this virtual experience leads you from high mountain country, at approximately 9,000 feet, down a twisting path through the sights, sounds and smells of the Greater Yellowstone area to below sea level. By the time you reach the basement, you may have found bighorn sheep, moose, elk, wolves, grizzlies and on down to the smallest creatures along the pathway. Near the end of the trail are the Yellowstone Seasons of Discovery, where you can look through microscopes or see inside a black bear’s den.
At the conclusion of your hike, you might just relax in the seating areas and digest what you’ve seen or learn more by joining the Campfire Circle with a storyteller or naturalist in residence.
The 303 miles from the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody encompasses parts of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and some of our country’s most dramatic scenery and history. Take the time to appreciate our fantastic heritage.
I visited these museums as part of a tour organized by Top Ten Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies, a public-nonprofit collaborative effort involving state, federal, tribal and local partners in five states and two Canadian provinces. You will find tourism information at drivethetop10.com.
For museum information, visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art website at wildlifeart.org and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center website at bbhc.org.
Read Sharlene Minshall’s online column, The Silver Gypsy, at rvlife.com Autographed copies of her books, RVing Alaska and Canada, 2009 Fourth Edition ($19.95) and Adventures with the Silver Gypsy ($14.95) are available by writing to Sharlene Minshall, P. O. Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332-1040 and through full-timerver.com and Amazon.com.