What is the mystique and attraction of the Wild West? Well, this museum tries to answer that, and it delivers far more than its name implies.
It’s a sweeping saga about life in the western parts of the USA, at a time when settlers were pushing west and trying to establish life along the new frontiers.
Originally called “The Cowboy Museum,” the name was changed to “The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum” to encompass more than just the story of cowboys and Indians, alluring as that may be.
On the northeast edge of Oklahoma City, the museum is housed in a huge, airy complex, which comprises a number of wings, and also boasts beautiful gardens dotted with bronze sculptures. Such examples include the enormous one of Buffalo Bill and a very large replica of Remington’s “Coming Through the Rye.”
Some large pieces are also on display inside: A dramatic, 18-foot high sculpture called “The End of the Trail,” by James Earle Fraser, dominates the entrance hall; “Abraham Lincoln” by James Earle Fraser sits at the entrance to the East Wing, and an 18-foot tall, white marble cougar called “Canyon Princess,” by Gerald Balciar, stands at the entrance to the West Wing.
A series of inter-leading galleries tell the fascinating story of the West with a superb collection of high-quality artwork. Each gallery tries to tell a part of this history and, as we walk through, a composite image begins to form. But, in fact, there is way too much information to absorb in just one visit and if possible, we’d like to return one day. It was a memorable experience to visit, as the exhibition really helped to fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge about this part of the country and era of history.
We learned about the Pueblo and Plains Indians, with their lovely pottery, intricate beadwork and leather, feather, and fur clothing. It also illustrates the other side of the typical story of the American Indians, when they were always portrayed as the “bad guys” who needed to be conquered. To be sure, many of the paintings done by “white men” still portray the Indians that way, as the wild or savage people. So, it’s nice to see that a more sympathetic angle is also offered.
The corridor to the main galleries is lined with small statues of American Indians sculpted by different artists, and each one is also accompanied by a painting beautifully done by George Catlin.
There are a number of great paintings by such artists like Charles Russell (1864-1926) and Jim Wilcox (1941-), along with the distinctive style of bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington (1861-1909). He was neither a cowboy nor a soldier, yet he captured the life and spirit of both with vigor and energy. There are also interesting pieces by other sculptors whom we hadn’t heard of before, such as Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912) and Harry Jackson (1924-).
In the paintings galleries much of the artwork focuses on herding cattle, roping and branding them, fighting the Indians and saving the mail. However, there are also paintings of quiet moments on the trail, dramatic landscapes and many of the local wild animals, such as Big Horn Sheep, buffalo, and even otters and rabbits.
A somewhat small exhibit on firearms is another integral part of this story, as firepower played a large part in the military push westward. The gallery of military life fits into this idea, too.
A whole gallery is devoted to the cowboy and life on the range—the clothing, equipment, food, etc. The general idea is that life was usually tough, but it also had rewards and often forged great friendships.
An off-shoot of this style of life was the rodeo, and a whole section is devoted to that. Set in a life-like 1950s arena, the gallery showcases artifacts of rodeo, including clothing, equipment and rodeo champions.
In many of the galleries, videos further enhance the activities in that theme. If possible, take the time to watch them, as they really do help extend one’s understanding. It’s also worthwhile viewing the Museum’s orientation movie, narrated by Tom Selleck, in order to get an overview of the entire exhibition.
A fascinating gallery is devoted to the western movies called Gallery of Western Performers, which show how western films filled public imagination with visions of gallant and brave men and spunky women. Apparently, John Wayne was an enthusiastic supporter of the Museum and donated much of his personal collection to it before his death in 1979.
In a separate wing, the small town of Prosperity Junction, a fun reproduction of a western cattle town at dusk around 1900, is set with a street and full-size structures. There is also a separate building devoted to activities for kids—the little buck-a-roos.
Once visiting this fantastic museum, take some time to wander around the gardens and admire the plaza, with its flags flapping in the breeze, and its many sculptures. Perhaps a Canadian goose will glide down to land on the water that glints from the sunlight.
There is a good restaurant called Dining on Persimmon Hill (named for the hill on which the museum sits), with large windows overlooking the plaza and gardens. A buffet lunch and a menu are offered. There’s also a large, well-stocked museum shop at the entrance.
Note that photography is allowed ONLY in certain parts of the museum.
For direction, hours and admission details, go to www.nationalcowboymuseum.org