Wandering the West
May 27, 2008
Gas prices being what they are, I wouldn’t suggest a jaunt up to Cody, Wyoming, just to look at a museum. But if you’ve got a Yellowstone trip in your future this summer, my favorite museum outside of the Louvre sits 50 miles east of Yellowstone’s east entrance and it’s worth a long afternoon. I’ve probably stopped by a half dozen times and I’ll stop again next time I’m in the neighborhood.
You could call the Buffalo Bill Historic Center the Louvre of the American West. It has five museums under one huge roof, and each tells a different chapter of Western history with really outstanding collections. Despite its name, it is a whole lot more than the telling of Buffalo Bill’s story. It has a world-class art gallery chock full of famed artists, a firearms museum holding one of the best collections anywhere, an Indian museum and a new natural history museum. When I say you could spend a long afternoon there, if you didn’t pace yourself, you could spend a long afternoon in each of the five wings of this complex.
At the core is the Buffalo Bill Museum, telling the story of William F. Cody (who founded the town) and his exploits, real and exaggerated, in the frontier West. For thirty years his traveling show, with a cast of real characters including Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley, played across the U.S. and Europe, spreading the history and myth of the American West to millions of fans who couldn’t get enough of the legend. The museum houses artifacts from the show, and tells the story of the American cowboy and other Western figures.
The Plains Indian Museum tells of the West before the cowboys and other European Americans arrived. It shows the life of Northern Plains Indians and their relationship to the buffalo and to those who arrived to push them onto reservations. Handmade cultural artifacts from the tribes tell of a life dependent on the seasons and what the natural world provided them.
Head across the cavernous entry hall to the Whitney Gallery of Western Art and you’ll see original works by Charlie Russell, George Catlin, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and John James Audubon. These are creations often reproduced. You’ve seen them in magazines, on calendars, and in history books, but these are the originals, hanging in of all places Cody, Wyoming.
Thomas Moran’s early paintings of Yellowstone helped convince Congress to create the world’s first national park in 1872. Audubon showed the natural world, perfect in detail down to the smallest feather. Russell knew the cowboy life and painted it thoroughly, and Catlin was in the West earlier than most, painting Native Americans and their lives before the country tried to kill or subjugate them.
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Contemporary Western art is here too, featuring local residents who likewise became world famous, like Henry Jackson (originally from Chicago) and native New Yorker James Bama. (Ironically, Jackson Pollock was a Cody native, but his work is not here and definitely not Western themed.)
Head downstairs and you’re in the Cody Firearms Museum. The Buffalo Bill Center claims this is the most comprehensive assemblage of American firearms in the world. The collection goes beyond American arms too, with weapons from the Chinese Middle Ages on up. Virtually every significant manufacturer in the world is represented here. After a couple of display cases, at least to me, all guns start looking alike, but this place attracts firearms aficionados far and wide, and its curators are oft-quoted world authorities on their subject.
There’s a new museum, the Draper Museum of Natural History, which opened in 2002. I haven’t seen it yet, but can only assume it is done with as much thoroughness and intelligence as the other four museums. Its focus appears to be the natural history of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, its wildlife and its world famous geology.
Against the backdrop of the permanent collection, there are always traveling exhibits, lectures and all manner of conferences and other gatherings. This is also a place for serious research on all things Western.
But mostly it’s just plain fascinating to see our part of the world as it once was in five unique museums built around the one grand theme of the Western frontier. And the fact that you pretty much have to drive through Yellowstone Park to get there is a bonus.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Cody: 441 miles
Insider tip: The road between Cody and Yellowstone has some great dude ranches if you have two or more days to stay. The Buffalo Bill Center’s colorful annual Powwow is June 21-22.