This year has been anything but routine for museums across the West. As the United States dealt with a global pandemic and businesses shut down—either voluntarily or by government order—museums found themselves shuttered as well. The staffs of many museums used the time while their doors were not open to begin planning new exhibits or ramp up their social media and online outreach to keep their institutions active. Many developed programs they shared through digital media by posting videos, descriptions and photographs of their collections, insider stories and more.
To say 2020 has been a challenging year for museums is a big-time understatement. As summer arrived, museums started reopening. While many of their annual events were either scaled back considerably or cancelled outright, the museums continued their important role as caretakers of the cultural history of the West. We encourage our readers to plan a trip and visit a museum just as soon as they feel comfortable traveling. In the meantime, check out museums’ websites to gain background on and understand their collections. Oh, and we’d also encourage you to make a donation to a museum, even if you cannot visit this year. That will help them keep the doors open for the future.
1. National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK
The clear winner of the COVID-19 social media programming this year is Tim, head of security at The Cowboy. He single-handedly kept the museum in the public eye when he took over the museum’s Twitter account in mid-March. He posted about some of his favorites in the collection, and no doubt attracted a whole new audience. It was brilliant marketing in a year that has been more than challenging for all museums.
The exhibitions “Warhol and the West” and “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing” are both extended until next July at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The museum has opened its new children’s area, Liichokoshkomo’, devoted to STEAM learning. Activities there bring history to life, including cross-cultural storytelling. Some of the hands-on activities are not yet being used, but eventually there will be an area for grinding corn, weaving on a giant loom and loading a pioneer wagon.
2. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY
This year has challenged the museum community in many ways and is leading directors to examine long-held traditions. This year it is not about the exhibitions that are on display, like a tribute to woman suffrage, so much as about those to come. Peter Siebert, director of the Center of the West, notes the challenges and is having his staff “take a hard and thoughtful look at our rotating and permanent exhibitions to see how we can truly represent the entire story of the American West. We are not seeking a token response but rather a deep and thoughtful review of what we do and specific action steps to ensure that changes will happen.” The museum will evaluate how it can better implement one of its strategic themes related to the dynamic cultures, environments and events that shape the West.
3. Western Spirit: Scottsdale Museum of the West, Scottsdale, AZ
The museum closed during the Coronavirus pandemic but continued to provide an experience for patrons by developing and posting a number of videos that can be viewed on the website. One video offers information about the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History and another is about the world of Paul Calle.
4. Pony Express Museum, St. Joseph, MO
Although it only operated for 18 months, the Pony Express endures with annual re-rides (this year to be held in September in a delay of the regular June event). Learn more about the Pony Express in this museum, which is at the site of the original stables.
5. Museum of the Mountain Man, Pinedale, WY
A full-scale replica of Chief American Horse’s tipi is a central exhibit in the museum that focuses on the fur trade of the Rocky Mountain West. Another exhibit highlights the history of Hugh Glass, with a diorama depicting his fight with a grizzly bear in South Dakota that made him a legend in the annals of mountain man history, and on the big screen in the film The Revenant.
6. Blackhawk Museum, Danville, CA
The Spirit of the West Gallery interprets big themes of the West including mountain men, overland travel and the Indians of California. The museum also has galleries devoted to artistic connections to China, the art of Africa and automobiles.
7. Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine, TX
While COVID-19 caused cancellation of the opening events for the 34th Annual Trappings of Texas, the museum reopened in July and has its annual exhibition of cowboy art and gear, which remains in place until the closing reception on September 19.
8. John Wayne Birthplace Museum, Winterset, IA
Our fascination with the Duke and his films keeps this museum on the top ten list. It has a great collection of memorabilia from John Wayne’s film career.
9. Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX
The museum honors the 100th anniversary of woman suffrage in the nation with its special exhibition “Undressing Suffrage.” Yes, that’s right, this exhibit is about voting rights and undergarments.
10. Adams Museum, Deadwood, SD
Find information about Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock, three of the West’s great characters, in this gold-rush town museum.