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Best Museums

RED LODGE POST

Montana has many wonderful museums. Collections cover a wide range of “subjects.” There are art museums, paleontology museums, and even a mineral museum and an old car museum. But most of the museums focus on local/regional histories. One museum in Helena does a fine job on covering the history of the whole state.

The great variety and scope of the state’s museum collections is amazing, given that so few people live in Montana and its cities are not large when compared with most other states.

Most certainly it is never possible to even scratch the surface if you are interested in seeing all the museums, as there are too many to visit even with countless trips to Montana. However, regardless of the towns or cities on your travel itinerary, an excellent museum will likely be nearby to entertain or educate.

For the best part, museums will give you background information for understanding and enjoying the things, architecture, cultural history, natural history, events, and creative endeavors that you will experience during your travels in Montana. Essentially many museums are there to showcase the state’s history, explain and interpret why it has developed as it has. In addition, some museums focus on the wonderful things and activities Montanans are currently engaged with on a regular basis.

Two museums, particularly, are outstanding. The Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming just across the Montana state border, southwest of Billings. Both museums have huge, wonderful, and carefully curated collections.

The collections in Helena are large in scope and character ranging from original C.M. Russell paintings to the story about first peoples, the Native Americans. Subject matter covers mountain men and fur traders, mining and prospectors, early pioneers and the settlement of the state, natural history, wildlife, conflicts with native Americans, and more are all here.

Historical Society Museum MT
Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena. Photo courtesy State of Montana News Room, Montana dot gov.

Buffalo Bill who was a world-famous showman in the American West in the late 1800s is the central thread of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park. But there is a whole lot more. This museum is really five separate thematic museums under essentially under the same roof covering: western art, culture of the plains Indians, firearms, natural history, and the man Buffalo Bill.

Museums Cody WY
Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Photo courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

The separate museums all have a name: The Whitney Western Art Museum; Plains Indian Museum; Draper Natural History Museum; The New Cody Firearm Museum; and the Buffalo Bill Museum. Every collection is world-class. Separately and together, these museums rival museums in much larger cities around the country. As a bonus, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has the resources to put on major special exhibitions. In 2020, the museum showcases 100 years of the Cody Stampede and the Equestrian West, for example.

Not widely known, the Montana Historical Society Museum has a magnificent, non-circulating, research library on Montana history which is open to the public. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West also has a special library centered on topics which support the mission of the museums. This library may be open for people doing advanced research. Always inquire before you go.

Montana’s history is, in some ways, alike that of Wyoming; as such, the museums in Helena and Cody can be viewed as complimentary. Of Course, Wyoming has Buffalo Bill while Montana has C.M. Russell, both geniuses who came out of the same era, days when Wyoming and Montana lands were on the western frontier.

Both states played a central part in the glorious story of mountain men and fur trading in the early 19th century. But Montana alone can lay claim to a huge part of the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition that explored the great Northwest in 1804-1806. Plus, Montana had the precious gold and silver and the men and women who sought to gain riches from the earth.

Visit Montana’s museums, one or more. Amazing rewards await those who chose to come by for a few hours or more. It should be noted that the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena is run by the state and open free-of-charge. Donations accepted. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody is a private operation. Visitors pay a fee to enter. Generally, $19.50, or less, depending on the age of the visitor. Seniors get a small break and for children free.

Both museums have extra-nice stores that sell books, art prints, and a variety of souvenirs. Your purchases at these stores help to fund the good deeds of the museums. Money earned is used on maintenance and to make the museums ever better.

Art Montana publishes an excellent directory of all museums in Montana, listed by city. Choose museums in the list, then a city, and pick out a museum to visit.

Horace Greely once said, “Go West, young man.” A wiser man might have said, “Conquer the West y’all, visit a Montana museum.”

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Copyright © 2020 John Sandy