Top 10 Western Museums of 2010

OUR FAVORITE 25:

1-TRAVEL BACK IN TIME: Of course, that’s what you do at any museum, right? But we’re especially taken with the “Time Travelers” program at the River of Time Museum in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Each year, area students, mainly in grades four-six, are invited to become youth docents for one of the museum’s 11 sections. They learn about being a trapper, miner, soldier, geologist and more. Now that’s how to get kids hooked on history. Awesome!

2-LEARN FROM A DISTANCE: You don’t have to travel to learn history and art. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, presented “distance learning programs” (videoconferences, more or less) that reached more than 14,000 students across the country during the 2008-09 school year. During a spring “Abraham Lincoln Turns 200” videoconference in which students were shown the sculpture The Freedman, depicting a slave breaking free of his chains, a third-grade boy said, “He’s thinking about standing up, walking around and looking at his future.” That’s pretty insightful.

3-SKIP SCHOOL: Not really. When budget cuts forced the Redmond School District into a four-day school week (no school on Friday), the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, offered the YES (Youth Engaged in Science) program. Students at Obsidian Middle School took part in lab experiments, outdoor observations and studied environmental science as part of a Choice Fridays plan that allowed students to sign up for various programs “to enhance their day and assist those parents who need child care or hope for improving their students’ academics.”

4-EXPERIENCE THE CIVIL WAR AT NIGHT: El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living history museum just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has Civil War re-enactments each May, but kids and adults also enjoyed a free candlelight tour taking visitors to various vignettes in which re-enactors depicted the everyday life of soldiers and civilians during the 1862 Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory. The cookies and hot chocolate afterward were pretty good too.

5-X MARKS THE SPOT: The Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona, has always emphasized educational programming and community outreach, and curators consistently come up with entertaining art activities for kids. We were tickled with one particular 2009 session, “Map Legends!”, in which children created antiqued watercolor maps to lost gold mines or other hidden treasures.

6-GET ATTACKED BY A WOLF: Or get caught in a buffalo stampede…or experience a gunfight at the Bee Hive Saloon. At Frontier Texas! in Abilene, the Century of Adventure, a state-of-the-art interactive, multimedia theater, uses lights, cameras and, above all, action to tell the story of the frontier history of Texas.

7-SING HAPPY TRAILS ONE LAST TIME: Sadly, the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum closed its doors after six years in Branson, Missouri. The museum originally opened in California in 1967, but declining attendance caused Roy Rogers Jr. to say adios on December 12, 2009. Roy Jr., by the way, will be performing at Branson’s Mickey Gilley Theater this year. Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a likin’ to ya.

8-LEARN ABOUT HONEST ABE: To celebrate Mr. Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the Abraham Lincoln Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois, put together a traveling exhibit, “Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America,” with several learning stations that last year reached the Dallas Heritage Village in Dallas, Texas; West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen, Louisiana; Four Mile Historic Park in Denver, Colorado; Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and “Temecula Reads! Lincoln” libraries in Temecula, California. The exhibits head east and west through September 2010.

9-GET MACABRE: Moms may not like it, but we’re betting every boy and plenty of girls who take a field trip to the Pinal County Historical Society Museum in Florence, Arizona, will get a kick out of the various prison death house displays. Hangman’s nooses, dual chairs for the gas chamber and a gallows trap door top the list. Sign us up to chaperone the next school outing.

10-EAT YOUR BEANS: The Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children’s Cowboy Festival at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, bringing in more than 10,000 kids and grownups for stagecoach and covered wagon rides, hands-on activities, the music of Red Steagall and Don Edwards, and plenty of biscuits, stews, cobblers and, yep, beans.

11-LISTEN TO A STORY: Nobody tells children’s stories better than Joe Hayes, whose whimsical tales highlighting Indian, Hispanic and Anglo cultures have been a weekend staple July through mid-August for the past 25 years at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

12-BE A MOUNTAIN MAN: Each May, the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming, brings in elementary schoolchildren from across southwestern Wyoming for its Living History Days, an educational program that teaches kids—and grownups too—about life during the fur trade era. Call it a “kiddie rendezvous.”

13-MAKE HISTORY WITH THE ARTS: The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma, puts third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the Old West, with living historians, art classes and music classes, in a pretty intensive, but incredibly fun, 3.5-hour program.

14-EXPLORE YELLOWSTONE: What we’d give to experience the “Greater Yellowstone Adventure” at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Draper Museum of Natural History in Cody, Wyoming. Third- through fifth-graders explored the Yellowstone region, learning about plants, animals and geology through interactive and hands-on demonstrations. Those lucky kids!

15-MAKE AN INDIAN BASKET: The Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California, holds various “Western Weekend Workshops” on Saturdays throughout the year for children. In October, we were captivated by the Autry’s workshop on American Indian basketry in which participants not only learned about the techniques, materials and functions of various Indian baskets, they also got to create their own to take home.

16-SELL YOUR ART: Any tourist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has likely strolled through the portal at the Palace of the Governors and maybe even bought a piece of jewelry from one of the Indian artists selling their wares. In July, the New Mexico History Museum sponsored a Young Native Artists Show in which children and grandchildren of the artists associated with the Palace Portal Program showed their own arts and crafts at the Palace of the Governors’ courtyard. Now that’s passing on the tradition.

17-WRITE A POEM (1): The art programs at Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona, aren’t just visual. The museum organizes a “Children’s Cowboy Poetry Contest” that includes lessons (not just about poetry, but Western history and heritage), after which students submit their original poems. Nine winners are then selected to recite their work at Wickenburg’s Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering in December.

18-WRITE A POEM (2): Not every aspiring poet lives in Arizona. The Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, sponsors the annual Georgia Youth Cowboy Poetry Contest. The top 10 in each of four age categories (elementary school through 12th grade) are invited to recite their poems before a panel of judges. Last year’s contest drew 500 Baxter Black wannabes.

19-TAKE A HIKE: Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, Arizona, sponsored several “Adventures in the Sonoran Desert” for children ages eight to 11, with informative day hikes around Apache Junction and Gold Canyon, and a guided tour of the museum, including the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, an old set from the 1969 movie Charro, moved here after a fire destroyed much of the Apacheland Movie Ranch in 2004.

20-BECOME A SCAVENGER: The A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art in Trinidad, Colorado, is more than just a great collection of Western art in a historic 1906 building. It also is the host of a scavenger hunt for children. Plus, we think kids and adults might enjoy that re-enactment of the “Clay Allison Shoot-out” each August—not to mention the museum’s 1700s elk hide painting.

21-BE A QUILTER: The National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho, showcased and honored the local youth “who are preserving and perpetuating the pioneer craft of quilting” with a special exhibit, “Youth Quilts on the Oregon Trail,” that ran throughout May 2009.

22-GIVE MOM AND DAD A BREAK: “Parents Night Out” is a collaboration between Amarillo’s American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, Amarillo Museum of Art and Don Harrington Discovery Center, and Canyon’s Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum that allows children ages four-11 to be dropped off ($20 for first kid; $15 for each additional). Mom and dad get to go on a date, while the children take part in various fun, and educational, activities.

23-KEEP TIME: The Dakota Discovery Museum in Mitchell, South Dakota, is an excellent children’s museum that teaches our youth all about art, history and culture. A summer exhibit, “Keeping Time,” taught visitors all about horology (that’s the study of timekeeping devices), clocks and even watch repair from the early 1900s.

24-SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY: The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, a living history museum in Grand Island, Nebraska, allows special birthday parties at various sites on the museum grounds, including the Static Train Display. What better way is there to celebrate a b-day and learn a little about Western history?

25-RIDE A PONY EXPRESS HORSE: You don’t have to worry about getting thrown, either, on the Wild Thing Carousel at the Patee House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, which also features the restored Pony Express headquarters. Expect a crowd this year as the Pony celebrates its 150th anniversary.

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