What we learned over the past year is this: Communication is important, even in museums. In August 2013, History Colorado Center closed its exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre after complaints from Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians because those tribes had not been consulted.
Of course, that Denver museum is still a great place to learn about Colorado history. Perhaps the state, museum and tribes can come to an understanding and re-launch that important exhibit about an ugly incident whose wounds have not yet healed 150 years later.
Thanks to museums, we also learned about cowboys and kids, guns and weather, and even a little bit about barbecue sauce. In short, despite some controversies, it was a fabulous year for Western museums—and museum patrons.
Click on the image above for a closer look at the 2014 winners.
TOP 10 WESTERN MUSEUMS
1. New Mexico History Museum: Santa Fe, NM
“Cowboys, Real and Imagined,” which closed this spring, gave us a fantastic look at cowboys, tracing their roots while also heading into the 21st century. Not only did the museum give us great displays—in state-of-the-art fashion—and a honest-to-goodness chuckwagon, it interspersed lectures and movies (from Cowboy to Lonely Are the Brave to City Slickers). Best of all, the exhibit made cowboys—and history—interesting to today’s youth. And this year? “Toys and Games: A New Mexico Childhood” runs through February 1, while the long-term exhibit “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now” is always intriguing.
2. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum: Houston, TX
Founded in 2000, the only museum dedicated to honoring the black soldiers in American history has continued to excel, particularly after moving to its new location. The museum’s collections chronicle the history of black soldiers from the American Revolution to today. And, Buffalo Soldiers Barbecue Sauce and Buffalo Soldiers Hot Sauce are tasty ways to do museum fund-raising.
3. Boot Hill Museum: Dodge City, KS
From the outstanding “Guns That Won the West” exhibit to the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame to the dinner shows and shootouts on Front Street, Boot Hill is one entertaining place to be educated on Old West history. We tip our hat to the marshal, Brent Harris, the archives staff and all the volunteers who keep history alive. The same can be said about Dodge City itself. The Home of Stone, Kansas Heritage Center, Dodge City Public Library, Fort Dodge and the trail ruts west of town are wonderful.
4. Autry National Center of the American West: Los Angeles, CA
If you’re a fan of Old West firearms, then “Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction,” showing in the Gamble Firearms Gallery, better be on your bucket list. Not only are Theodore Roosevelt’s and Annie Oakley’s guns displayed, but so are the Remington revolver of Gettysburg hero George Meade and a gun belt owned by actor Steve McQueen. Besides, how many museums transcend the West with exhibits on Route 66, Tonto and the Lone Ranger and Michael Jackson?
5. Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave: Golden, CO
After paying your respects to William F. and Louisa Cody, and enjoying the view atop Lookout Mountain, make sure you visit the museum, too. The permanent exhibits are outstanding, but we are especially charmed by the temporary exhibit “Folk, Fine and Funky: Buffalo Bill in Art,” which closes January 25. Bring your kids to Buffalo Bill’s Western Roundup on September 23.
6. Cody Firearms Museum: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY
Got a question about how many rounds an 1886 Winchester musket in .50-100-450 caliber holds in the tube? Inquire at this museum. Already the world’s most comprehensive collection of American firearms, the museum got even better with the exhibition “Journeying West: Distinctive Firearms from the Smithsonian,” which runs through the fall of 2015.
7. National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum: Oklahoma City, OK
Always a winner, with exhibits honoring cowboys (rodeo and real), performers (singers and actors), Indians, firearms and history, this museum is especially known for its art. And the William S. and Ann Atherton Art of the American West Gallery showcases the museum’s permanent art collection in 10 newly reinstalled exhibition spaces.
8. Panhandle- Plains Historical Museum: Canyon, TX
As one old-timey Texan once said of the Panhandle: “It’s the only place where you can stand hip-deep in mud and have dust blow in yer eyes.” So it’s fitting that this jewel gave patrons “Weather Photos” and “Wild and Wacky Weather on the Panhandle Plains” last year. And this year? How about “Madonnas of the Prairie: Depictions of Women in the American West”? Another fun exhibit, “High Fashion on the High Plains,” runs through January
9. North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum: Bismarck, ND
If the first two galleries—“Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time” and “Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples”—don’t blow you away, just wait. This museum is getting a new look. The Great Plains Theater is all new; the children’s exhibit area, “The Treehouse,” was scheduled to open this spring. “Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today” and the “Governors Gallery” are set to open on November 2, in conjunction with North Dakota’s 125th anniversary of statehood.
10. California Trail Interpretive Center: Elko, NV
Between 1841 and 1869, roughly 250,000 people made a 2,000-mile trek to California. This Bureau of Land Management interpretive center tells their story, but also examines impact on the land and explores the culture of the Shoshone Indians.
TOP 6 ART MUSEUMS
1. Briscoe Western Art Museum: San Antonio, TX
Located on the Riverwalk, San Antonio’s newest museum opened last fall. The Night of Arts Art Sale & Exhibition is becoming a player, but we especially admire the museum’s goal to blend art, artifacts and history. Executive director Steven M. Karr explains: “The Briscoe seeks to embrace a broad Western perspective that looks at a host of different artistic mediums, whether it’s painting, sculpture, whether it’s an artifact or a contemporary piece.” Spend some time strolling the one-and-a-half-acre grounds–with exhibits housed in the main building, San Antonio’s historic first library, the new pavilion and the McNutt Courtyard and Sculpture Garden. You can view new works by top artists, study Pancho Villa’s last known saddle and be wowed by a fantastic diorama of the Alamo battle.
2. The Phippen Museum: Prescott, AZ
With a permanent collection of paintings, etchings, drawings, bronze sculptures, photography, artifacts and jewelry, dating from the late 19th to the early 21st century, what else could you want? Well: two studio replicas, four galleries, a research library, special events and exhibits like “Through Navajo Eyes” and “National Parks of the West.” Psst: Bob Boze Bell will be doing a lecture, “Stories of the True West,” on November 20.
3 . The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art: Sarasota, FL
“Wild West,” which closed in February, showcased original posters printed between 1890 and 1950 celebrating Wild West shows from Buffalo Bill to the 101 Ranch. Beginning October 24, check out “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898,” the first major U.S. exhibition to explore the private lives and interiors of Spain’s New World elite from 1492 through the 19th century.
4 . Smithsonian American Art Museum: Washington, DC
William Koch, who spent a lot of dough on the tintype of Billy the Kid, brought his collection to our capital. “The Western Frontier,” which closes August 24, features more than 1,000 pieces of art, from paintings by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington to photographs of Annie Oakley and Wyatt Earp.
5 . Stark Museum of Art: Orange, TX
The museum showcases an outstanding collection of 19th and 20th century Western art and artifacts, but you’ll also find decorative art of glass and porcelain, plus rare books and manuscripts.
6 . University of New Mexico Art Museum: Albuquerque, NM
The museum launched a new biennial show that features an established or up-and-coming Native artist. The first show, featuring Navajo Melanie Yazzie, was a rousing success.
MUSEUMS TO KNOW
1. Northfield Historical Society (Northfield, MN): The 50-caliber Smith carbine (on loan from owners Gerry Groenewold and Connie Triplett) used by Henry Wheeler against the James-Younger Gang during the 1876 bank robbery was on temporary display. This museum always is first-rate, and the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days is entertaining and accurate.
2. The Durham Museum (Omaha, NE): From Abraham Lincoln to a T-Rex named Sue, this Omaha institution covers the region, plus everything else with a healthy dose of traveling exhibits. History, culture, science are all realized inside Union Station.
3. Charles Goodnight Historical Center (Goodnight, TX): Charlie Goodnight’s Panhandle home has been restored, giving travelers along U.S. 287 a great reason to stop southeast of Amarillo. Here’s another reason: The neighboring J. Evetts Haley Education and Visitor Center opened this spring.
4. Jesse James Farm and Museum (Kearney, MO): Not only is the boyhood home of Jesse a great place for tourists, the museum remains a great place for researchers. The purchase of Robert and Zerelda James’ letters and the Robert James essays from Wilbur Zink’s collection increases the museum’s value.
5. National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (Fort Worth, TX): Any museum that shows how tough cowgirls are gets our vote. If “Tough by Nature, Portraits of Cowgirls and Ranch Women of the American West” didn’t win us over, then “Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women,” an exhibit of Barbara Van Cleve’s photography that runs through September 11, certainly did the job.
6. Old State House Museum (Little Rock, AR): Housed in the original state capital built in 1836, the museum has some excellent exhibits on the state’s Old West past, including the outlaws and lawmen made famous by True Grit. Check out the new exhibit, “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” that highlights the history of film and filmmakers in Arkansas.
7. Union Pacific RR Museum (Council Bluffs, IA): The entire first floor is dedicated to the Transcontinental Railroad, but “Building America” isn’t alone. Exhibits on “American Travels by Rail” and “The Lincoln Collection” are also worthwhile.
MUSEUMS TO WATCH
1. Hotel de Paris Museum (Georgetown, CO): Celebrating its 60th anniversary.
2. High Desert Museum (Bend, OR): One hundred and thirty-five acres of animals, exhibits and history.
3. Yuma (AZ) Territorial Prison State Historic Park: The West’s definitive “Crime Doesn’t Pay” history lesson.
4. Navajo County Historical Society Museum (Holbrook, AZ): A treasure trove found in a historic courthouse.
5. Tucson (AZ) Rodeo Parade Museum: Buggies, wagons, surreys, coaches, artifacts and a recreated Western town’s Main Street.
6. Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (Walnut Grove, MN): Family heirlooms, dolls, artifacts, buildings and TV show memorabilia.
7. Red River Valley Museum (Vernon, TX): Excellent blend of history, art and science.
8. Pendleton (OR) Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame: A great history of one of the West’s most historic rodeos. Let ’er buck!
9. Stockyards Museum (Fort Worth, TX): Traces stockyards, packing plants, cowboy history, and a 100-plus-year-old light bulb that’s still burning.
10. Fort Bridger (WY) State Historic Site: Restored historic buildings, including Jim Bridger’s trading post.