Category Archives: Museum

Tributes to Cowboy Culture

The iconic West lives on in museums showcasing Western art, rodeo and entertainment

When I was in Oklahoma City recently, I spent not-enough-time in the National Cowboy & Western Museum, one of the wonderful institutions throughout the West commemorating, memorializing and sometimes romanticizing the cattle and the cowpokes who have worked them under the big blue dome that covers the Western prairies, valleys and canyons. A montage of cowboy and television cowboys provide a “hey, remember that!” pop-culture connection to what is a far more comprehensive display of American West — Anglo, Hispanic and black cowboys at work; rodeo as a social connector for ranchers on the West’s vast open lands and as entertainment; the US Cavalry; the art of the West; excellent children’s interpretive sections, and even beautiful gardens. The image below shows the rear of the museum, as seen from the gardens.

As a born-and-bred New Englander, I continue to be captivated by Western art and culture. In addition to the National Cowboy & Western Museum, here are other excellent museums with significant permanent, rotating and visiting exhibitions that celebrate and enlighten about various aspects of the American West:

I’ve enjoyed visits to and been fascinated by them all

Denver Art Museum’s iPods — Plus

21st century museum adds 21st century audio — and light meals now are served across the plaza

No museum in the nation made more of a recent splash than the Denver Art Museum did in 2006 with the opening of the radical Daniel Liebeskind-designed Hamilton Building, a dramatic angled structure clad in titanium. During a recent visit, I noticed the addition of iPod stations (with instructions on how to use the device and seats to plunk down on while you are doing so) to provide interpretation in as modern a mode as the building itself.

Several galleries are currently closed for the installation of new exhibits, but the gorgeous Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism continues through September 7, featuring 40 exquisite mid- and late-19th century French and American landscapes from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.

The last time I wanted a bite to eat at the museum, there was a small snack bar in the North Tower, the older of the DAM’s two connected buildings. The snack bar is no more. Kevin Taylor’s Palette’s Restaurant has now expanded into that space, and anyone who wants something lighter is directed across the plaza to Mad Greens, whose mid-day specialties are soups, salads and panini.

The museum is open daily except major holidays and Mondays — except Monday, August 25, when it will not only be open but will be free to show off Denver’s cultural side and artistic treasures in honor of the Democratic National Convention.

The Denver Art Museum is at 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver; 720-865-5000.

Travel Thumbnail #2: Frisco Historic Park & Museum

This is the second of a series of periodic reports on specific places I’ve visited — and which you might want see to as well. Post a comment or let me know directly what you think of this new Travel Babel feature.

The Place: Frisco Historic Park & Museum, CO

The Story: This museum and local park containing a complex of historic structures from Frisco’s mining heyday is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — and next year, the town of Frisco itself turns 130. I’ve passed the old schoolhouse with the “Museum” sign many, many times, but it was usually before or after skiing, which meant the museum wasn’t open, or when I didn’t have time to stop and look around. A visit last week was enough to convince me that I had missed a genuine Colordo high-country treasure.

Many local small-town museums are a jumbled hodegpodge of anything anyone chose to donate, from genuine historic treasures to old trash. Unlike such museums, which do have their own funky charm, Frisco’s is sensibly laid-out, well lit, clearly labeled and truly informative — in short, it was curated, not thrown together.

The museum (built in 1899 as a saloon, later the town’s schoolhouse, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) features a working railroad layout (put a quarter in the slot and watch the train go around), old school desks that children love to sit in and a variety of such displays as glass-cased objects from the Swan River Valley’s past. Recent civil engineering history spotlights the construction of the nearby Dillon Dam and Eisenhower Tunnel. In the natural history realm, there several taxidermed specimens of local fauna.

Beside and behind the museum are nine relocated buildings. The oldest is an 1860 cabin, before there really was a Frisco. Others range both chronologically and functionally from the 1881 jail to the 1943 Log Chapel. Most date from the 1890s, and all contain additional historic displays from mining, ranching and trapping in the valley. Household goods, furnishings, clothing, the role of women in the valley, ski history and more are documented. Some structures also include recorded, push-botton audio narrations in voices from the past. In all, it is extraordinarily well done.

Tips for visiting: If you are interested in American history, Western history, Colorado history or mining history, be sure to allot a couple of hours for your visit.

Cost: Free

Coming Event: The museum’s official silver anniversary celebration of the park and museum takes place August 15-17, 2008, featuring an art and antique show, an old-fashioned ice cream social and live music.

More Information: The Frisco Historic Park & Museum is located at 120 Main Street; 970-668-3428. Click here for the museum’s own audio-video preview, or see my almost-silent movie by clicking on the image below. It is my first effort at including a video segment, so please excuse an amateur’s technical inadequacies.

Summer hours (May-September), 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Sunday, 9:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Winter hours (October – April), Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., Sunday, 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Closed Monday. The park tself is open, even when the buildings are closed.

Frisco’s Main Street is roughly parallel to Interstate 70. Take exits 201 or 203, and follow the signs.

Travel Thumbnail #1: Bent’s Old Fort

Step back to the 1830s and 1840s with a visit to this adobe fort along the historic Santa Fe Trail

This is the first of a series of periodic reports on specific places I’ve visited — and you might want to as well. Post a comment or let me know directly what you think of this new Travel Babel feature.

The Place: Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, CO
The Story: This “castle on the Plains” is a faithful reconstruction of a fortified adobe trading post built on this this site in 1833 by brothers William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain along the Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Route (that is, the northern route). That section of the Santa Fe Trail followed the Arkansas River, which provided water for livestock and humans in the Great American Desert.

Bent’s Fort was the linchpin of the Bent-St.Vrain Company’s trade that stretched from Fort St.Vrain to the north to Fort Adobe to the south. Cheyenne, Arapaho, Arikara, Comanche, Kiowa, Shoshone and Sioux Native Americans were known to have traded at Bent’s Fort, but the main trade was with the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos. Bent’s Fort took in buffalo robes and passed out supplies, but it also resupplied explorers, adventurers, pioneers and the US Army and also was a place for wagon repairs, livestock, food, water, hospitality and congenial company.

Bent’s Fort welcomed anyone traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, including Indians, soldiers, Mexicans, Germans, French, Irish and blacks — tolerance that was not to be taken for granted in its heyday. William bent encouraged alliances among people who would later war violently on each other.

During Mexican-American War in 1846, Bent’s Fort was a staging area for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West,” which seized land in what is now New Mexico but was eventually defeated in California. Until a combination of disease and the US Army’s unwillingness to compensate William Bent for garrisoning Kearny’s soldiers caused its abandonment in 1849, the fort was the only major permanent Anglo settlement along the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and Mexican holdings.
The fort was reconstructed for the US Bicentennial in 1976 according to archaeological excavations and original sketches, paintings and diaries. A skeleton Park Service staff is on hand all year round, supplemented in summer by costumed docents and re-enactors who recapture life in this frontier fort for 21st century visitors.
Today, visitors see living quarters, workshops, store rooms, ramparts, kitchens and trading areas.
Tips for visiting: Sunscreen, water and bug spray are useful. Mid-day summer temperatures in the 90s or higher are not unusual.
Cost: Adults, $3; children aged 6 to 12, $2 under 6 years , free. Also free are holders of the Interagency Annual Passes, Senior Passes and Access Passes.
More Information: The Santa Fe Trail Historic Byway Association has additional information about Bent’s Old Fort and also encampments and other participation events.
The site is open daily except select holidays. Summer hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. From September 1 through May 31, hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Bent’s Old Fort is 70 miles from Pueblo, 8 miles from La Junta and 15 miles from Las Animas. The official address is 35110 Highway 194 East, La Junta, CO 81050-9523; 719-383-5010.

Philadephia Offers New High-Tech, Self-Guided Tour

With Ben Franklin as a guide, visitors can’t go wrong in the cradle of American liberty

July 4, American Independence Day, would seem to have been the perfect date for the introduction of a new self-paced GPS Ranger tour of Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. But July 14, Bastille Day, isn’t a bad choice either, because the French got their uppity ideas about removing themselves from under a royal yoke from the new United States. Also, Benjamin Franklin, portrayed by Philadelphia’s Ralph Archibald, who hosts the tour, was a key to striking an alliance between the nascent United States of America and France. But more to the point, the 14th worked better than the Fourth of the mayor of Philadelphia, who is expected at the debut of the new tour.

The GPS Ranger is a device that “knows” the user’s location based on GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. See what I mean about high-tech? This patent-pending, handheld computer then delivers the tour, including appropriate video, audio, musical soundtrack and historical photographs, to visitors. It is to those museum audio tours what high-def color television is to AM radio. However, everything happens automatically. There are no buttons to push to tell the device the visitor’s exact location. I haven’t used it myself, but it is said to be both entertaining and educational.

The state-of-the-art Independence Visitor Center rents the device for $15.95, which is a good deal because it can be shared by several visitors and covers the historic highlights around what has been called Philadelphia’s Most Historic Square Mile, including the Liberty Bell, National Constitution Center, Declaration House, Washington Square containing a burial ground of fallen Revolutionary War soldiers, the “Moon Tree” grown from seeds that on board a moon flight in 1971, City Tavern, Christ Church Burial Ground with the graves of five signers of the Declaration of Independence including Franklin and Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the country, dating back to the early 1700s.

Route 66’s Detour to Colorado

Charming and nostalgic exhibition of America’s “mother road” closing soon at Longmont Museum.

“Return to Route 66” ends its three-year national tour at the Longmont Museum & Cultural Center on March 9. The show features black-and-white and color photographs by Shellee Graham, who lives not far from the storied highway that linked the Midwest, the Plains, the Southwest and southern California. Graham photographed iconic motels, drive-in theaters, gas stations, roadside attractions, cafes and other eateries and, of course, the people who ran them. Some still exist, most in a state of decay, and some are gone completely. The show also includes four vintage automobiles, a Texaco gas station display (with the price at the pump permanently set at 24.9 cents a gallon), a pyramid of oil cans, chrome hood ornaments, postcards, maps and more memorabilia.

Graham lives in Missouri, so many of her images are from there and from Illinois. I remember a long-ago trip from Connecticut, where I grew up, to Albuquerque that included many miles on Route 66. Other than crossing the Mississippi, virtually nothing stuck in my mind from Illinois or Missouri, though surely we stopped to refuel in the kinds of places Graham documented. All I remember about Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle was the occasional sign saying “Stuckey’s 90 Miles” or some similarly imposing distance, at the end of which was a pecan log roll. The brilliant neon lights of Amarillo, which we reached at sunset, and Tucumcari, which we passed through late at night, are etched in my memory more enduringly than the Art Deco and funky, folksy businesses they promoted.

But for the rest of what I value now that I’m an adult and increasingly dismayed by the chains that dominate the landscape, I was then too young and too ignorant to appreciate what I saw along Route 66. Oh, how I longed for Howard Johnson’s, with its familiar fried clams and 28 ice cream flavors. I missed New England, with towns that were just a few minutes apart not many miles apart. I wan’t used to driving for what seemed like hours between places to stop. I had no sense of the the importance of those vast, flat stretches, knew nothing of the Dust Bowl except for its name and couldn’t really understand why the road had been so important in American migration.

Now, whenever my husband and I take an east-west road trip in New Mexico or Arizona, we always escape from Interstate 40 to explore what remains of the old Route 66. Grants, Gallup, Holbrook, Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams and Seligman are my particular favorites, and these towns have worked to resurrect their Route 66 heritage.

It serves as downtown Albuquerque’s main drag, but in smaller towns, remaining landmarks have proved to be enduring attractions along the way. In fact, Route 66 is the destination and not the detour for many travelers, including many Europeans, who seek out Historic Route 66, as its remaining sections are now signed.

For an armchair road trip, get Graham’s evocative book, Tales from the Coral Court: Photos and Stories from a Lost Route 66 Landmark. For a real trip along the proud old road, I recommend the Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion by Tom Snyder, one of numerous guidebooks. Historic Route 66, dedicated to providing information to travelers, maintains a current list of useful books.

Admission to the Longmont Museum is free (donations welcome). It is located at 400 Quail Road, Longmont (just east of Main Street and south of downtown and Ken Pratt Boulevard); 303-651-8374.

Coming in October: Denver Arts Week

I’m going to be traveling for a good part of October, and I’m kind of bummed, because I’ll be away for the first annual Denver Arts Week. I don’t know whether anyone has counted up the individual events, but the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau cultural census has tallied more than a dozen museums, 40 performing arts groups, six neighborhood arts districts and 100 art galleries. Here are some events that I already regret having to miss:

Friday, October 5 – Super First Friday Art Walks in RiNo, ArtsDistrict on Santa Fe, Golden Triangle Museum District, Tennyson and Cherry Creek North, the half-dozen arts districts the DMCVB has identified. What makes it more “super” than a regular First Friday Art Walk? For one thing, the ArtsDistrict on Santa Fe will have live music all weekend with street performers, a drum circle, fire dancers and wine/beer tents.

Friday, October 5 – Colorado’s GALA Choruses’ “Everything Possible” at Montview Presbyterian Church, 1980 Dahlia Street, Denver. The concert will start at 8:00 p.m. and feature the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus, Denver Women’s Chorus, Harmony: A Colorado Chorale, Out Loud: Colorado Springs Men’s Chorus, Resonance Women’s Chorus of Boulder, Sine Nomine and Sound Circle. Tickets are $20. For sales locations, click on website or call 866-464-2626.

October 5-7 – Tickets the Colorado Ballet (“Le Corsaire”) and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (“Magnificent Mendelssohn II”) are $52.80 for two. They’re not cheap seats either.

There are all sorts of other special events, some free. You can find them on website with a full calendar, but the ones I’ve mentioned are the ones I would have been most likely to attend.
I know that I will also be missing the October 5 first look at the Denver Art Museum’s “Artisans & Kings: Selected Treasures from the Louvre,” but it will be around until January 6, so I figure there’s time to catch that.

Taliesin West & Frank Lloyd Wright’s 140th Birthday

Yesterday was the 140th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday — so I’m a day late in this tribute to a man whose imprint on modern American architecture was larger than life. Born in the Midwest, he left a significant body of work in that region, particularly in Oak Park, IL, which boasts the largest number of Wright buildings still extant (25 built between 1889 and 1913).

Wright built Taliesin East in verdant Spring Green, WI, in 1911, where he developed his signature, low-slung Prairie Style homes, with particular attention to lighting, heating, climate control and simple, built-in furniture. But my Frank Lloyd Wright pilgrimages don’t take me eastward. They take me to the Arizona — specifically, to Taliesin West, which served as his home, his studio and an architecture school that survives to this day.

In 1937, Wright began Taliesin West as a “desert camp” for himself, his family and his apprentices. That makes 2007 its 70th anniversary year. Seventy years ago Wright 70, so visiting Taliesen West this year has an elegant symmetry. Remarkably, Wright;s creativity and productivity never flagged, with one-third of his 1,100 works during the last decade of his life, the years of Taliesin West.

Rewind to 1937. It was the middle of the Depression, when what is now the sprawling Phoenix area was then an agricultural backwater, and Taliesin West was definitely off the grid. During the first four years of Taliesin West’s construction, life on 600 arid acres was beyond rustic. It was primitive. There was no electricity or heating. Water was hauled in from a nearby ranch.

As it was being built by apprentices from materials found on site and scavenged from the small city of Phoenix and even smaller Scottsdale in the valley below, Taliesin West had a camp feel. The roofs were made of white canvas, filtering in natural light by day. There was no glass on the windows, just canvas coverings that were pulled down to protect the interior and its occupants from wind or occasional downpours.
Like migrating birds, Wright and his entourage moved between the two Taliesins at the change of seasons. One of the apprentices’ tasks each spring was to lock all the furniture into secure, roofed storage rooms, to be taken out again in fall.
Apprentices also were, and still are, required to design and hand-build their own small abodes. Cabin, lean-to, tent and other structural forms dot the property, and at the end of the year, apprentices demolish their handwork, so that their successors can do the same thing.
Even while it seemed to be on the edge of the wilderness, Taliesin West was a cultural oasis, with such diversions as music, drama, dance and even dress-up dinners. Wright believed that architects needed social graces if they wanted to win commissions.
You don’t have to be an architect to admire Wright’s genius and make a pilgrimage to Taliesin West too. I visit it every time I’m in the area, and I sort of wish I had been there for this birthday that marks another decade since his birth. Wright’s home and studio are open for tours (daily though June and from September, daily except Tuesday and Wednesday in July and August. For information, go to, or call 480-860-1700.

New York Subway Musings

An interesting museum showcases underground New York

The New York Transit Authority has made great efforts to clean up and upgrade subway trains and stations — in Manhattan, at least. Stations’ new artwork includes replacement tiles in “subway white,” but new new graphics and designs relate to what’s above-ground now. Also, some platforms have been refloored, graffiti has been curtailed, elevators now make many underground train platforms accessible, and security issues have been addressed. Any improvements to this century-plus-old system that hauls millions of riders a day in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of subway cars and buses is to be applauded.

Still, it is difficult, as a rider, to ignore the considerable downside to the New York subway system experience. Peeling (and sometimes leaking) ceilings, chipped paint, ubiquitous litter, pools of standing water between the rails and the occasional rat do are dispiriting. So are squadrons of wary but bored-looking police officers (I counted 17 on Broadway line platform at 6:00 p.m. this evening) and glum riders who never make eye contact with one another.

The subway was not always a literal and figurative pit. It was once the pride of New York. It is still possible to see glimpses of the subway’s elegant past. The fancy brass token booth cages have given way to heavy Plexiglas booths and transit card vending machines. Yet some stations still boast elegant terra cotta signage and on some routes, trains rattle past ghostly, abandoned stations. Most spectacular of all are the Gustavino Vaulted Ceilings in the City Hall Station (right), fabricated by a company whose projects included work on the US Supreme Court Building.

The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights has opened a convenient gallery annex at Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. It’s open fromn 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekends. It’s worth a visit — and the price is right: free.

Until July 8, the gallery is showing an exhibition called “Architects of the NYC Subway, Part 1: Heins & LaFarge and the Tradition of Great Public Works.” Extensive captioning, historic photographs and diagrams tell the story of the subway, but what I liked best was the terra cotta, seen upclose and not high on a wall or through a grimy subway window. The terra cotta was cast and fired by the like of “Maker Unknown” (the Hay Street Station plaque) to Rookwood (Wall and Fulton Street stations).