Travel Features

Top 10 Western Museums of 2013

Where to get your fill of Western Art and History in 2013.


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Last year went down in history as a “Year for Museums out West.” New ones opened, others reopened after extensive renovations and old favorites kept interest in the Old West by showing how history can be alive, relevant and fun.

If you think historical museums feature dusty old relics with boring text explaining what you’re allegedly looking at, you need to check out our Top 10.

History can be—and must be— exciting. Our top 10 museums and top six art museums really excited us!

history-colorado-center-exhibits1. History Colorado Center: Denver, CO

After years of planning and construction, the History Colorado Center opened its doors in April 2012, revealing the first phases of its new look.

That new look—costing $110 million, with another 40,000 square feet and another $33 million in the works as expansion continues—looks spectacular.

The museum’s interactive and informative exhibits richly illustrate Colorado’s dynamic history. Each exhibit is engaging for visitors of all ages—from the riveting dance performances to the tragic recounts of history (the Sand Creek massacre exhibit is particularly heartbreaking.)

State historian William J. Convery, the museum’s director of exhibits and interpretation, put it best: “We’re making history fun.”

Add to that lectures and a phenomenal library and research center, and you will easily see why this museum was chosen as our number one museum for 2013.

Buffalo-Bill-Center-of-the-West_Buffalo-bill-seated-in-tent2. Buffalo Bill Museum:
Cody, WY

After six months of renovations, the Buffalo Bill Museum reopened last year. As part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (formerly the Buffalo Bill Historical Center), the museum features 15,000 square feet of artifacts and state-of-the-art technology.

This museum is also a long dream coming for curator John C. Rumm. William F. Cody used every communication medium available to him to present the American West. In the spirit of Cody’s love for communication, Rumm has continued that legacy by creating a museum for the 21st century, using every communication tool at our disposal to enhance the experiences our visitors receive.

Karl-May_Old-Shatterhand_NM-History-Museum3. New Mexico History Museum:
Santa Fe, NM

No remodeling here, but we have witnessed yet another fabulous year for a relatively new museum. “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now” is always a treat, but what really caught our attention was the temporary exhibit “Tall Tales of the Wild West: The Stories of Karl May,” which gave Germany’s most famous Western writer plenty of American exposure. That exhibit runs to February 9. A new exhibit, “Cowboys Real and Imagined,” debuted in April and runs through March 16—and it is just as impressive.  /

Great-Platte-River-Road-Archway-museum4. Great Platte River Road Archway: Kearney, NE/

If you’re driving along Interstate 80, you will not miss seeing this museum. A dream of late Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison, the Great Platte River Road Archway celebrates Westward expansion—Oregon, California, Mormon and the Pony Express Trails all converged here. Last November, the Archway opened a new exhibit that honors the Pawnee scouts and their service to the U.S. Army and the Union Pacific Railroad.

California-Trail-Interpretive-Center5. California Trail Interpretive Center: Elko, NV

This brand new, $20 million facility opened last June. This is the third Bureau of Land Management trail center (joining those in Casper, Wyoming, and Baker City, Oregon) and the first one of its kind that focuses exclusively on the California Trail during the iconic Gold Rush journey (1848-55). Life-size dioramas, original artwork and interactive and multimedia displays give travelers a look at how easy they have it today.

buffalo-bill-museum-and-grave_buffalo-bill-letterhead6. Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave:
Golden, CO

The way we see it, you can’t have too many museums focused on Buffalo Bill Cody. In 1921, Johnny Baker opened this museum, near Lookout Mountain (where Cody
was laid to rest), to preserve the memory, contributions and gravesite of the famous frontiersman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.


Fort-Reno-Visitor-Center-and-Museum7. Fort Reno Visitor Center and Museum:
El Reno, OK

Established in 1998, the Fort Reno museum celebrates the frontier post, which operated from 1874-1908, and consists of 25 buildings and the post cemetery. Last year, two permanent exhibits were completed: the first phase of a walking tour exhibit that depicts the 1870s era and a two-panel exhibit inside the museum. The inside exhibit details Fort Reno’s early history and its later days as a remount station and USDA Grazinglands Research Laboratory.

boothill-museum-gunsmoke-exhibit8. Boot Hill Museum: Dodge City, KS

Boot Hill Museum offers an excellent look at Dodge City’s turbulent early history. Established in 1947, the museum continues to educate tourists, historians, schoolchildren and Gunsmoke fans about what life was really like in the late 1800s. Besides, any museum that can hold a Testicle Festival, a chili cook-off and a Breakfast with Santa rates high with us.


buffalo-soldiers-national-museum9. Buffalo Soldiers National Museum: Houston, TX

Finally, the museum that honors black soldiers of the West has found a new home in a 23,000-square-foot building last fall. Exhibits on “Things That Changed the American West,” highlighting barbed wire, the six-shooter and the windmill, add depth to an already deep museum.





10. Heard Museum: Phoenix, AZ

American Indian art and history meet at the Heard. The museum’s “Chocolate, Chili & Cochineal: Changing Taste Around the World” exhibit explored not only food, but how a tiny insect (the cochineal) affected Navajo textiles and northern New Mexico santos. This year, the Heard showcases Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hopi katsinas in an exhibit opening on September 28 and running through January.

***History Museums to Watch:

Charles Goodnight Historical Center/Goodnight, TX: The restored 1887-1926 home of cattleman Charles Goodnight had its grand opening in October 2012. The adjacent J. Evetts Haley Education and Visitor Center opened this spring. A big tip of the Stetson to the Armstrong County Museum in Claude for making this longtime dream a reality.

Historic Daniel Boone Home and Heritage Center/Defiance, MO: Acquired by Lindenwood University in 1998, this site preserves and protects the history and legacy of the legendary frontiersman who moved to Missouri at age 65 and died at home in 1820. With 2014 marking the 280th anniversary of Boone’s death and the 50th anniversary of the Fess Parker TV series’ debut, expect more interest in this museum and other Boone sites very soon.

Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site/Laramie, WY: Butch Cassidy slept here, but undoubtedly wished he was somewhere else. The great site offers prison tours and plenty of Wild West experience. The affable Cassidy gets his due in the museum with a special exhibit scheduled to open in June 2014.

Autry National Center of the American West/Los Angeles, CA: The Autry turned 25 this year, but the real party might just be starting (“Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” opened in May and “Art of the West” opened in June). W. Richard West Jr., who had directed the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., has been hired as chief executive of the Autry. The Autry has always been a fabulous place to visit, but we like how West told The Los Angeles Times: “I think museums should be a forum for debate and sometimes even controversy.” Go for it, Richard!


***Opening Image:
History enthusiasts are pulled in by the tile map of the Greater Yellowstone region showcased in the Draper Natural History Museum, one of five museums at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (the former Buffalo Bill Historical Center) in Cody, Wyoming.

— By Chris Gimmeson —


The Top 6 Art Museums of 2013

joslyn-museum-karl-bodmer_upsichta-mandan-man1. Joslyn Art Museum: Omaha, NE

To help mark the Union Pacific Railroad’s 150th anniversary, the dynamic Joslyn Art Museum gave visitors “The Great West Illustrated: Celebrating 150 Years of the Union Pacific Railroad” last summer.  The exhibit showcased the 1868 photographs of Andrew J. Russell, who helped document the construction of our nation’s Transcontinental Railroad. Many of his images were published in 1869 in The Great West Illustrated. Yet even without trains, the Joslyn houses one of the premier collections of Western art, from Alfred Bierstadt and Karl Bodmer, to George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller—plus Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Thomas Moran.

amon-carter-museum_fort-worth_charlie-russell.jpg2. Amon Carter Museum: Fort Worth, TX

If you love Frederic Remington and Charles Russell—as much as collector, newspaperman and philanthropist Amon Carter did—you will find no better place to visit than this great facility in Fort Worth’s arts district. Last year, 100 of Russell’s watercolors went on display in “Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell.” Since 1961, the Carter Museum has showcased more than 500 exhibitions.


american-museum-of-western-art_denver-co3. American Museum of Western Art: Denver, CO

Founded in 2010, this nonprofit museum—located in downtown’s Navarre Building in Denver, Colorado—surveys art of the American West from the early 1800s through the age of industrialization. The extraordinary collection provides a thorough look at Western history through the eyes of artists. With the Western and Indian art collections at the Denver Art Museum and the Anschutz collection at this museum, Denver’s reputation as a great city to see Western art keeps growing.



4. Museum of Northern Arizona: Flagstaff, AZ

Fine art and historic art have always been mainstays at this quaint museum. Last November, the exhibit “Arizona’s Pioneering Women Artists” honored “dedicated and talented women artists [who] worked in the West [and] were largely forgotten until recent decades,” curator Alan Petersen says. We thank this museum for bringing attention to women such as Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Kate Thomson Cory, Nora Lucy Mowbray Cundell, Jessie Benton Evans, Susan Ricker Knox, Erna Lange, Claire Dooner-Phillips, Marjorie Reed, Lillian Wilhelm Smith and Marjorie Thomas.


eiteljorg-museum-of-american-art_indianapolis5. Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art: Indianapolis, IN

The fabulous Indian Market and Festival—among the tops in the country—celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Eiteljorg last year. Meanwhile, exhibits on Northwest Coast Art and katsina carvings and colors (red, white, blue, black) showed how one of our favorite museums keeps everything covered.



booth-western-art-museum_the-buttes6. Booth Western Art Museum Cartersville, GA

The Booth is another great museum that covers a wide array of special exhibits, including the “Booth Photography Guild’s Annual Exhibition,” “The Indian Gallery of Henry Inman” and “On Location with the Plein-Air Painters of America.” We can’t wait until October, when “Today’s West! Contemporary Art from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West” comes to Georgia.



smithsonian museum


Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC): Billionaire William Koch—the same “Wild Bill” who bought the tintype of Billy the Kid for $2.3 million in 2011—is scheduled to bring his Western collection to the nation’s capital. “The Western Frontier,” featuring photographs, paintings, sculptures and ephemera, is set to run March 28 to August 24 in 2014. Art and art museum purists might snub their noses, but Old West aficionados will undoubtedly
love it.

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