The Best Western History Museums

As the American West continues to reclaim its place in the nation’s cultural imagination, more and more museums are devoting their resources to honoring that storied past. The top Western museums aren’t just intoxicated celebrations of cowboy fantasy or sentimental recompense for those who suffered at the hands of white colonizers; instead, they strive to tell a complex story of success, defeat and strength that transcends stereotypes.

Located in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, The Brinton is home to an impressive collection of art and objects related to the American West. Among its best-known works is The End of the Trail, a monumental sculpture by James Earle Fraser that captures an evocative moment in history when the frontier was at its most tumultuous and inhospitable. Other highlights include a life-size sculpture of a buffalo by the artist Charles M. Russell and an extensive holding of Native American art and artifacts.

The museum’s mission is to “serve the public by collecting, preserving and exhibiting the western heritage of America and its influence throughout the world.” The collection includes works of art, archives, historic objects and documents, photographs, maps, musical instruments and archaeological and ethnographic specimens. The museum’s tens of thousands of objects and its two-million-square-foot facility are open to the public for free.

When the museum first opened in 1988, its founder, cowboy singer Gene Autry, envisioned his museum to exhibit and interpret the heritage of the Western United States and to show how that legacy has influenced the world. Since then, the museum has expanded far beyond Mr. Autry’s original imaginings and now encompasses many aspects of Western history, including the history of the overland trails.

It has also become one of the most diversified and respected natural science museums in the world. It sponsors more than 100 field expeditions each year to study the natural world, and its collections of natural history, geology, anthropology and entomology are renowned.

The Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame honors the men and women who exemplify the independence, creativity and resilience of the Western way of life. This includes artists, competitive cowboys, ranchers, musicians and other individuals who have championed the Western culture.

The museum also recognizes those who have contributed to the preservation of the Western heritage through awards and fellowships. The museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Western legend Clint Eastwood, and it hosts annual events such as its Prix de West competition and educational programs. It is a member of the American Alliance of Museums.

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