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National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City

The iconic romantic mystique of “The West”, embodied by such famous names as John Wayne, Will Rogers, Frederic Remington. What is the mystique and attraction of the Wild West? Well, this museum tries to answer that, and this is a museum that delivers far more than its original name implies.

It’s a sweeping saga about life in the western parts of the USA, at that time when settlers were pushing west and trying to establish life along the new frontiers—from late 18th century, throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

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 inter-leading galleries tells this fascinating story with a superb collection of really high-quality art work. 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, if that’s not possible, then 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, feather, and fur clothing. It shows the other side of the typical story of the American Indians, when they were almost 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 the wild or savage people, so it’s nice to see that a more sympathetic angle is also 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. A really interesting temporary exhibit is on the Sun God and His Wife—a series of (mostly) paintings depicting some of the Indian myths and legends about the importance of the sun in their lives and cultures.

In the Sublime Frontier Gallery of Early Paintings of the American West there are a number of great paintings by such artists as Charles Russell (1864-1926), Tom Lovell (1909-1997), and Jim Wilcox (1941-), and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), in his typical, very distinctive style. We note “Coming Through the Rye” and “Bronco Buster”. He was neither a cowboy nor a soldier and yet he captured the life and spirit of both with vigor and energy. We are always amazed at his wonderful understanding of the form of the horse. There are also great pieces by a couple of 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—called American Arms, American Industry, American Art—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 and a challenge, but that this life also had rewards and often forged great friendships.

An off-shoot of this style if 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. Somehow, this period in history and this kind of life appeared romantic and amazing and spawned a huge film industry, some based on classic western novels by authors such as Zane Grey, others less well known. Famous movie stars in this genre were born—-think John Wayne, Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Dorothy Page, and Roy Rogers, for example. But the genre continues—-think Tom Selleck. A mini Walk of Fame has these famous names and we step over the stars with Gary Cooper and Maureen O’Hara, among others. A huge collection of memorabilia tells the story. 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 reproduction of a western cattle town at dusk around 1900, as a street with full-size structures. It’s in a very high-ceilinged building with very low lighting so it really does feel as though we are strolling in the open air at night, past dimly-lit store fronts, a small church, a saloon, a livery stable, a bank, a one-room schoolhouse, for example. What fun.

There is also a separate building devoted to activities for kids—the little buck-a-roos—but we didn’t have a chance to go into 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.

The museum attendants and guards are dressed in cowboy-style clothing—white shirts, with stars and a bola, jeans and boots, and a black cowboy hat.

There is a pleasant 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. We had a light lunch there, which was very good. 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

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