Thoughts on Museums

Museums are some of my favorite places. Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved history books, historical sites, and history in general. I’ve visited every kind of museum, from national museums to regional museums to small local museums. I generally like them all so high on my list of things to do this summer was to visit museums as we traveled across the West. As a side benefit, museums also offer a refuge from the heat during the summer afternoons.

The main difference between museums is the money behind them. The larger, classier museums have big budgets which allow professional curation of items, better displays, larger buildings, and more technology. The small, local museums have small budgets and the curation shows it. The items are usually crowded into small, cluttered spaces which make it hard to see everything. And hard to keep clean. Many of the small museums smell very musty and dusty. But you cannot doubt the pride in the local history nor discount the dedication of those who support the small museums. These traits give the small museums the most character and sometimes the most interesting stories that the docents are very eager to share.

Harvey Dunn Painting
Harvey Dunn Painting

I visited the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) in Canyon, Texas to see a painting by Harvey Dunn who was a South Dakota boy. He painted a Prairie Series showing women homesteaders in the harsh conditions of the prairie, with children in tow. Dunn’s pictures remind me of Hubby’s great-grandparents who were prairie homesteaders in the early 1900s. The PPHM also showcases a broad range of history of the southern plains where I used to live and where many friends and family still live.

We got a special tour by my uncle through the Stevens County Historical Museum in Breckenridge, Texas. The museum’s items are packed into too small of a space, but the stories they tell cover times from pre-white-settlement days through the oil boom of the 20th century. That’s a long expanse of time. The museum is housed in a two-story former bank building where Grandmother used to work when Mother was a girl. That alone was worth the trip. Mementos from Dad’s high school days on the football team were housed in a room down the hall from Grandmother’s former office. Those were my parent’s good ol’ days and it was fun hearing them recall special memories.

Mom and I visited Frontier Texas, a new state-of-the-art museum in Abilene, Texas. It’s not a typical museum since artifacts and displays are limited. Holograms give the history lessons about Indians, settlers, and cowboys on the Texas frontier. The kids seemed particularly interested what the holograms taught—a modern way to teach! An in-the-round theater with spinning seats offered a fun theater experience. Even us oldsters enjoyed the new kind of museum experience.

If you are ever near Dolores, Colorado, you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center. Curated there are the artifacts from the numerous Anasazi and Basketmaker prehistory cultures around the Four Corners area. The Anasazi were an artistic people as demonstrated by their designs painted on their pottery, houses, and kivas. I thought the films the museums showed were very well done and narrated mostly by the descendants of those people so it was more insightful than was expected.

Museum and Denture Clinic Sign
Museum and Denture Clinic Sign

The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum is privately owned and located in a rundown part of town, next to a denture clinic where you can buy premium dentures for $325 or the economy model for $275. When Hubby and I drove into the parking lot and saw the sign “Parking for Museum and Denture Clinic Only,” we almost drove away. But we decided since we’d taken the trouble to find the place, we should at least see what it was about and we are glad we did. It is a quaint collection of items that are not necessarily curated professionally, but are displayed effectively considering the small space and the number of items. I was amazed at how much history was crammed into that building and the docents were extremely helpful in making sure that we saw the highlights. We were really glad we stopped in.

In Great Falls, Montana we went to the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center that overlooks the Missouri River and enjoyed its air conditioning and exhibits. It is a Forest Service facility that is fairly new. The museum has a maze that takes you through a timeline of events of their 1804-1806 journey from start to finish. Amazing way to show that history. Two movies played in the theater, but we had a dinner date with friends in town so we didn’t get to see them. Ken Burns did one of the movies so I’m sure it was top-notch. Sorry we had to miss them.

We toured a couple of art museums. For me, art museums are tricky. Art, as I like it, is not always found in city museums, but I am usually open to seeing what they hold. In Great Falls, I got a very pleasant surprise. I grew up seeing Charlie Russell western artwork around our house and a museum we found there by accident is dedicated to him, his art, and other western artists. His realistic paintings, drawings, and sculptures of what he saw in his lifetime were colorful and fascinating in their details. When we were there, the museum had a George Caitlin display about bison from the Smithsonian. The art museum on the campus of South Dakota State University showcased more Harvey Dunn paintings and other “realistic” painters. I liked it because I didn’t have to guess what the artist intended the picture to display, although some of the paintings of balloon animals fighting with toothpicks left me scratching my head.

We also visited the museum in the visitor center at Lake Poinsett State Park, South Dakota. Hubby had made friends with the director of that museum (another blog) and set up a special tour with him through his very small, one-room museum. The director’s grandparents homesteaded and farmed on the banks of the lake and the land was still in the family. Countless centuries before they settled there, Native Americans lived and hunted on that land, leaving behind countless artifacts that anyone can see at the museum. Knowing the director also has its perks: he allowed us to handle the 10,000-year-old projectile points and tools and the yet older dinosaur eggs. Ever held an unborn dinosaur in your hand? It’s awe-inspiring!

So my message is to visit museums! Especially the ones in and near your town. You might be surprised what you will learn.

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