Spurring interest in western U.S.
By Vivienne Mackie
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 U.S., at that 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 with high ceilings in a number of wings and has beautiful gardens dotted with bronze sculptures, including the enormous one of Buffalo Bill and a very large replica of Remington's "Coming Through the Rye."
Inside are some large pieces too: In the entrance hall is a dramatic 18-foot-tall sculpture called "The End of the Trail" by James Earle Fraser; "Abraham Lincoln" by James Earle Fraser sits at the entrance to the east wing; and at the entrance to the west wing is an 18-foot-tall white marble cougar called "Canyon Princess" by Gerald Balciar.
A series of interleading galleries tells this fascinating story 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. But, wandering through once is still a great experience and really does begin to fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge about this part of the country and era of history.
We learn about the Pueblo and Plains Indians, with their lovely pottery, intricate beadwork and leather, feathers, and fur clothing. It shows 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 do portray the Indians that way, as wild or savage people, so it's nice to see that a more sympathetic angle also is offered.
The corridor leading to the main galleries is lined on both sides with small statues of American Indians done 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 as Charles Russell (1864-1926) and Jim Wilcox (1941-) and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington (1861-1909) in his typical, very distinctive style. He was neither a cowboy nor a soldier and yet he captured the life and spirit of both with vigor and energy. There are also interesting pieces by other sculptors whom we'd not heard of before, such as Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912) and Harry Jackson (1924-).
In the paintings galleries, many of the paintings focus on herding cattle, roping and branding them, on fighting the Indians, on saving the mail. But there are also paintings of quiet moments on the trail, of dramatic landscapes and many of the local wild animals, such as big horn sheep, buffalo and even otters and rabbits.
A smallish exhibit on firearms is an integral part of this story, as of course, firepower was a large part of 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 often tough, but it also had rewards and often forged great friendships.
An offshoot of this style of life was the rodeo, so 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 are videos you can watch about the activities in that theme. If you can, take the time to watch them, as they really do help extend one's understanding.
It's also worthwhile watching the museum orientation movie, which gives an overview of the whole museum and is narrated by Tom Selleck (in the theater just off the main entrance).
A fascinating gallery is devoted to the western movies, called Gallery of Western Performers, showing how western films filled public imagination with visions of gallant and brave men and spunky women. Apparently, John Wayne was an enthusiastic supporter of this museum, and before his death in 1979, he donated much of his personal collection to the museum.
In a separate wing is the small town of Prosperity Junction, a fun reproduction of a western cattle town at dusk around 1900, as a street with full-size structures. There also is a separate building devoted to activities for kids — the little buckaroos — but we didn't have a chance to visit that.
Wander around the gardens a little, admiring the plaza, flags flapping in the breeze, the many sculptures, and the sun glinting off the water, on which a Canadian goose may land.
Definitely worth a trip.
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 directions, hours and admission details, visit nationalcowboymuseum.org.
Urbana resident Vivienne Mackie loves to travel and learn about the history of different places as a way of trying to understand them better. Take a look at her blog, viviennemackie.wordpress.com.