Our top Western Museums for 2022 reflect the dedication of communities to their heritage.
The icons of the West, like the Duke and the American cowboy, are among the featured exhibits in the best museums of the American West, and they are being joined by new cultural characters including Hank the Cowdog. That loveable pup—the literary creation of West Texas rancher and writer John Erickson—has his own exhibit designed to educate kids and adults about the importance of ranching.
In addition to new exhibitions and even entirely new or expanded facilities, museums are making their collections accessible through multimedia and online exhibits, so it is possible to experience and learn about the art, artifacts, culture and stories of various institutions while remaining at home.
But trust us, it is so much better to get on the road and visit in person these great displays of our Western heritage.
1. National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (Oklahoma City, OK)
“Colter’s Hell: Yellowstone Park at 150” is a special exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum this year. It features art from the Cowboy Museum collection as well as items borrowed from other institutions including the Gilcrease Museum. On National Root Beer Float Day (August 6), kids took over the Cowboy for their own exploration of Yellowstone, looking for animals in the artwork during a scavenger hunt, and seeing a geyser in action. Among the exhibits opening late this year and on into 2023 are “Looking into the Windows of the West,” “Art of the Northwest Coast” and “Sombreros Texanas Bosses of the Plains: Cowboy Hats from the Permanent Collection.”
2. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West (Scottsdale, AZ)
“Light and Legacy: The Art and Techniques of Edward S. Curtis” remains on exhibition into 2023 providing an opportunity for visitors to see the fabulous photographs Curtis made during his travels in the West. The train clubs of Scottsdale’s McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park worked with Western Spirit on an exhibition that features period HO and G scale train sets that operate hands-free. This multimedia and tactile exhibition gives a glimpse into the trains of the American West and includes images and sounds appropriate to the various vignettes, including the driving of the Golden Spike, Harvey Houses, the Harvey Girls, the El Tovar Hotel (Grand Canyon, AZ), the La Posada Hotel (Winslow, AZ) and Los Angeles Union Station.
3. National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (Casper, WY)
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center not only highlights the history of the overland trails that converged at the last crossing of the North Platte River, but also opened “The Battle of Red Buttes,” a new exhibit that centers on the July 26, 1865, battle involving the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota people in the first significant attack in what is now Wyoming. The Red Buttes fight was planned and executed by Little Wolf, Hump and other tribal leaders in direct retaliation for the November 1864 massacre at Sand Creek. It resulted in the death of Sgt. Amos Custard, and more than 20 men from the 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry who died—and are still buried—on the battle site just west of Casper. Fighting earlier in the day near Platte Bridge Station resulted in the loss of several additional cavalry troopers, including Lt. Caspar Collins of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, for whom the frontier station—and ultimately the city—were named. The exhibit and 25-minute documentary film about the battle highlight descendants of the native participants including Little Wolf, Hump, Crazy Horse and Dull Knife or Morning Star and the Arapahos who were attacked at Sand Creek.
4. Boot Hill Museum (Dodge City, KS)
Boot Hill has a double-header this year as the town celebrates its sesquicentennial and the museum recognizes its diamond jubilee. These 150- and 75-year anniversaries mean it’s time to pull out all the stops, so the museum featured a display of Miss Kitty dresses dating back to the 1950s and ’60s, a banner from the Dodge City Fiesta, predecessor to Dodge City Days and a six-foot-tall Evans drumhead used by the Dodge City marching band. The community celebrated with Founder’s Day weekend in June and, not to be outdone, the Long Branch Saloon Variety Show literally kicked off its 65th annual season. These events mark the end of the first year of operation for the newly reimagined museum, which completed a $6 million upgrade in 2021. So even if you think you’ve been to Dodge City and seen all there is to see, there’s a pretty good bet that you haven’t. Featured in the new exhibit are signature pieces on display each for a year at a time that includes three Plains Indian artifacts, including a beaded dress belonging to a wife of Morning Star Chief and another dress that was owned by the wife of Elk Eye Tooth Chief, along with a fully beaded cradleboard.
5. Three Rivers Museum (Muskogee, OK)
“Then Came the Law,” an exhibit focused on the early law enforcement history of Muskogee and Indian Territory, features original artifacts, historical photographs, interactive elements and an audiovisual presentation on law enforcement legends Bass Reeves and James Franklin “Bud” Ledbetter. This exhibit will have further enhancement during 2022 and in future years. Visitors can now learn more about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in the Muskogee area by using a new digital interactive program that incorporates their stories. The museum holds the Bass Reeves Western History Conference annually, giving more detailed information about law enforcement in the region. The Three Rivers region was the location of the biggest Osage trading region, then as more settlers arrived, the railroad was built to fill the need for easy travel. The museum makes its home in the Midland Valley passenger rail depot that once brought thousands of passengers in and out of the area.
6. John Wayne Birthplace & Museum (Winterset, IA)
The shutdowns museums across the country experienced during Covid became an opportunity to focus on exhibits and new offerings, and the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum, which is developing a new addition to its facility, took Covid closure as a time to develop a series of videos that allow virtual visitors the chance to learn more about the museum and of course the Duke himself. This year’s John Wayne Birthday celebration included the music of Carin Marie, a talented young performer from Colorado, a showing of McLintock! and Barry Corbin. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
7. National Ranching Heritage Center (Lubbock, TX)
Hank the Cowdog, the literary creation of John Erickson, has been delighting readers for decades with his tales of ranch life where he is the head of security. Now the National Ranching Heritage Center has partnered with Erickson to create a permanent indoor/outdoor experience: the Ranch Life Learning Center. It is a unique learning immersion featuring natural resource stewardship, animal husbandry, wildlife habitat, ranch ecology, animal nutrition, ranching and the working cowboy using Hank the Cowdog to guide visitors. Exhibits are designed for children’s interaction and comprehension, yet people of all ages will come away with a holistic answer to the question “What is a Ranch?”
Society is increasingly isolated from ranching as jobs and upbringings shift to urban environments. The effect is that fewer and fewer people have a place that they can learn about the earth and how to steward it. Having a place to explore natural resource stewardship, animal husbandry, wildlife habitat, range ecology, animal nutrition and business management from the ranching perspective is elemental to generating sustainable societal solutions. The Ranch Life Learning Center is designed to give an accurate, adult-level ranch life educational experience in a format that enriches children of all ages. Featured in more than nine million copies worldwide, “Hank the Cowdog” is a book character and theme licensed exclusively to the National Ranching Heritage Center for this exhibit.
8. Autry Museum (Los Angeles, CA)
Among the new exhibitions at the Autry Museum is “The Silent West,” which features American West-themed posters from the Silent film era, a remarkable period of commercial lithography. The exhibit shows that women and people of color had important roles in developing the silent movies from acting as script writers to directors and stunt performers. Among the ongoing exhibits at the Autry are “Four Centures of Pueblo Pottery,” with more than 100 pieces of rare ceramics, and “Human Nature” highlighting four key California stories—Salmon, Fire, Desert and Plants. Using American Indian objects and contemporary artwork, photography and multimedia displays, the exhibit shows how culture and ecology merge in the landscape of California.
9. Museum of the Big Bend (Alpine, TX)
Rare maps, retablos and arrowheads from the Davis Mountains are reason enough to visit, but watch this museum as the walls are going up for its major expansion project that will include a new permanent gallery plus additional temporary galleries. Among the highlights of the new space will be an area dedicated to the art of Tom Lea, one of the premiere horse and cattle artists of the Southwest.
10. Blackhawk Museum (Danville, CA)
Founded to highlight a classic car collection, the Blackhawk Museum has evolved and features “The Spirit of the Old West” with rare artifacts and interesting stories interpreted to educate and entertain visitors. The “World of Nature” gallery has information about more than 650 unique animals, birds, insects and fish in life-like habitats brought to life by an immersive audio program “Wild Scapes” that takes real animal sounds from habitats around the world to transport visitors to the Arctic, rain forests and the jungles of South America, plus an African Savannah.
First Americans Museum (Oklahoma City, OK)
Occasionally the museum world has an opening that surpasses all expectations, and that is the case with First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. Exhibitions created by Native Americans recognize the stories of all 39 tribes in Oklahoma today. They also celebrate objects important to indigenous culture that, after 100 years, are being returned to the Oklahoma tribes from the Smithsonian Institution. The Exhibition “FAM, Winiko: Life of an Object, Selections from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian” shows how tribal objects reflect values and possess spiritual significance. FAMOK.org
J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum (Claremore, OK): TheGunMuseum.com
Museum of the Fur Trade (Chadron, NE): FurTrade.org
Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History (Hastings, NE): HastingsMuseum.org
Woolaroc Museum (Bartlesville, OK): Woolaroc.org
Nelson Museum of Western Art (Cheyenne, WY): NelsonMuseum.com
NRA National Sporting Arms Museum (Springfield, MO): BassPro.com
Cody Firearms Museum (Cody, WY): CenterOfTheWest.org
The Autry National Center (Los Angeles, CA): TheAutry.org
The John Browning Museum (Ogden, UT): OgdenCity.com
The Charleston Museum (Charleston, SC): CharlestonMuseum.org
Cowboys, Indians, Lawmen, Mountain Men and Outlaws
Jesse James Farm & Museum (Kearney, MO): The stories of the James family, their farm, and their outlaw escapades are a focus at this museum and the farm where Jesse once lived. JesseJames.org
Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum (Pawhuska, OK): Visit here to learn about one of the great rodeo and Western film cowboys. BenJohnsonCowboyMuseum.com
Billy the Kid Museum (Hico, TX): There’s always a new story about Billy, and you’re sure to find something intriguing in these collections. BillyTheKidMuseum.org
Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum (Ignacio, CO): American Indian artwork is on display as part of museum program to foster the arts among American Indians. SouthernUteMuseum.org
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (Waco, TX): Texas Ranger talks resumed at the museum this summer. TexasRanger.org
Museum of the Mountain Man (Pinedale, WY): Mountain men, Hugh Glass and a replica of the American Horse tipi are just three of the good reasons to visit this museum. MuseumoftheMountainMan.org
Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame (Fort Worth, TX): You’ll see the chaps, spurs and gear of Texas cowboys at the hall of fame located in Cowtown. TCHOF.com
Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian (Amarillo, TX): See Kwahadi artifacts or enjoy a dance by tribal youth. Kwahadi.com
Gunfighter Hall of Fame Museum (Tombstone, AZ): Guns and gunfights are the core of this museum experience. Gunfighter-Fame.Keeq.io
Dalton Defender and Coffeyville History Museum (Coffeyville, KS): The Daltons rode into town and faced a town unwilling to let them ride out unscathed. Coffeyville.com
Chiricahua Desert Museum/Apache Museum (Rodeo, NM): The material items of the Mimbres, Apache and Casas Grande tribes include pottery, tools, sandals and more. ChiricahuaDesertMuseum.com
Favorite Western Regional Museums
Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home (St. Joseph, MO): Ride the carousel and learn about the Pony Express in the Patee House Museum, then step outside and around the corner to the Jesse James Home, where the famous outlaw was gunned down by Jack McCall. PonyExpressJesseJames.com
Atoka Museum & Civil War Cemetery (Atoka, OK): Diorama vignettes of life in the region of Atoka, Oklahoma, cover the Civil War, military service and even champion bull rider Lane Frost. AtokaMuseum.org
Robidoux Row Museum (St. Joseph, MO): The Robidoux family was prominent in the early fur trade era of the West, and you can learn about them and experience the lives they led in this unique museum. RobidouxRowMuseum.org
Museum of the Great Plains (Lawton, OK): The 1901 train depot and a rebuilt agriculture exhibit with pieces used throughout the plains from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s opened this year, and the museum is replacing non-native plants and trees with native trees and plants to better display what the prairie would have looked like without European influence. DiscoverMGP.org
Little Snake River Museum (Savery, WY): Historically, Carbon County was one of the largest sheep-producing counties in the nation. And the newly opened MacPherson Sheep Center celebrates and preserves the history of the sheep industry in the American West. The museum is restoring The Divide Sheep Camp in the nearby national forest so visitors can experience a herder’s traditional “home on wheels.” LittleSnakeRiverMuseum.com
Campbell County Rockpile Museum (Gillette, WY): A homestead shack and blacksmith shop are part of the attraction at the Rockpile. CampbellCountyWY.gov
Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum (Cheyenne, WY): It may appear this museum is all about rodeo (and it is), but there is more, including Western art, buggies and wagons, and artifacts including a gun that once belonged to Tom Horn. OldWestMuseum.org
Northeastern Nevada Museum (Elko, NV): The art of Will James and wildlife dioramas are part of the eclectic collection at the Northeastern Nevada Museum. MuseumElko.org
Superstition Mountain Museum (Apache Junction, AZ): The Lost Dutchman Mine is legend in Arizona, and this museum delves into the history of the mine and Jacob Waltz. SuperstitionMountainMuseum.org
Finney County Historic Museum (Garden City, KS): The True Crime Exhibit features actual evidence from the tragic 1959 Clutter family murder case, which led author Truman Capote to write his groundbreaking book, In Cold Blood, and the 1920s crime spree of the infamous Fleage Gang, bank robbers and murders in Southwest Kansas. FinneyCounty.org
Kern Valley Museum & Historical Society (Kernville, CA): Geology and fossils are key exhibits here, along with displays of ranching artifacts. KernValleyMuseum.org
Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum (Elko, NV): Beautiful bits (some sold during the annual Bit Auction), and other gear of the buckaroos are on display. CowboyArtsAndGearmuseum.org
World Museum of Mining (Butte, MT): Mining equipment, a Chinese laundry and the facilities of the Orphan Girl Mine Yard take you back to Butte’s mining heritage. MiningMuseum.org
Arizona History Museum (Tucson, AZ): “Los Desconocidos: The Migrant Quilt Project” shows the importance of quilts through the centuries. ArizonaHistoricalSociety.org
Churchill County Museum Association (Fallon, NV): A new exhibit, “The 1860s: The Decade that Made Nevada,” opened this summer. CCMuseum.org
Editor’s Pick: 18 Museums Not to Miss
Front Street Cowboy Museum (Ogallala, NE): OgallalaFrontStreet.com
Frontier Auto Museum (Gillette, WY): FrontierAutoMuseum.com
Clay County Museum and Historical Society (Liberty, MO): ClayCountyMuseum.org
Meeteetse Museums (Meeteetse, WY): MeeteetseMuseums.org
Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum (Ridgedale, MO): BigCedar.com
Hutchinson County Museum (Borger, TX): HutchisonCountyMuseum.org
Jim Gatchell Museum (Buffalo, WY): JimGatchell.com
West of the Pecos Museum (Pecos, TX): West-of-the-Pecos.edan.io
Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum & Parks-Janeway Carriage House (Santa Ynez, CA):
Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ): Heard.org
Days of 76 Museum (Deadwood, SD): DeadwoodHistory.com
DuPont Historical Museum (DuPont, WA): DupontMuseum.com
Nevada Northern Railway Museum (Ely, NV): NNRY.com
Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site (Bishop, CA): LawsMuseum.org
Navajo County History Museum (Holbrook, AZ): HolbrookAzMuseum.org
Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Cody, WY): CenterOfTheWest.com
Sharlot Hall (Prescott, AZ): SharlotHallMuseum.org
Living History Museums
Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site (Laramie, WY): WyoParks.Wyo.gov
Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (Grand Island, NE): StuhrMuseum.org
Museum of the Old West dba Old Trail Town (Cody, WY): OldTrailTown.org
Ouray County Museum (Ouray, CO): OurayCountyHistoricalSociety.org
Grand Encampment Museum (Encampment, WY): GEMuseum.com
Pony Express Museum (St. Joseph, MO): PonyExpress.org
Museum of the Mountain West (Montrose, CO): MuseumoftheMountainWest.org
Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave (Golden, CO): BuffaloBill.org
Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site (Olathe, KS): Mahaffie.org
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Crow Agency, MT): NPS.org
California Trail Interpretive Center (Elko, NV): CaliforniaTrailCenter.org
Old Cowtown Museum (Abilene, KS): OldCowtown.org
The New Mexico History Museum and the Palace of the Governors National Historic Landmark, (Santa Fe, NM): NMHistoryMuseum.org
OK Corral Historic Complex (Tombstone, AZ): OK-Corral.com
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (Coloma, CA): Parks.CA.gov
Headwaters Heritage Museum (Three Forks, MT): TFHistory.org
Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum (Carson City, NV): StewartIndianSchool.com
New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum (Las Cruces, NM): NMFarmAndRanchMuseum.org
Kaw Mission State Historic Site and Last Chance Store Museums on the Santa Fe Trail (Council Grove, KS): NPS.gov
Gold Rush Museum (Auburn, CA): VisitPlacer.com