The Nelson Museum of the West: And Interpretive Mission


Here is a link to a Google Maps image of the front entrance, which is not found on the website.

I started this assignment with the plan to find a museum that is local to me now and evaluate its interpretive mission as a budding museum professional. However, I realized I hold a peculiar place in this instance, with the ability to use my newfound knowledge of all the components of the Curatorial Arts and the numerous occasions I visited the three major museums in my hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne is a small city of 59,000 people, and about 51,000 of them are white. While it is the state capitol it hosts only the capital building and the legislative offices. There are no colleges and there are few public institutions.

The city hosts the largest outdoor rodeo in the world, and much of the festivities outside of the arena happen along the crossing of Lincolnway Boulevard and Capitol Avenue. This is considered the city’s historic district and many of the homes and the Governor’s Mansion can be toured during what is called the hibernation period for us locals. With that said, the train depot is considered a historic site, which can be toured as well, but it also hosts a train museum. A block away is the Wyoming State Museum, and in between is the Nelson Museum of the West.

The Nelson, as the locals call it, was the dream of the founder Bob Nelson who made a fortune from cattle ranching. The museum now holds about 14,000 objects and a library hosts 4,000 books on all things Wyoming, Cheyenne, and cowboy-related history. The outside of the museum is not the most inviting and the entry point is two glass doors and a sign with an arrow pointing to the left. It has a staff of two who are very welcoming and are quick to answer any questions and engage with the visitors. Much like the surrounding museums, they host a variety of spurs, saddles, and Indian jewelry. Interestingly, over the years the museum has begun to collect a wide range of artifacts relating to military history, Mexican cowboys in the area, and some interpretation of minorities like the Buffalo Soldiers and Eskimos.

The internal needs are minimal, but something could be done to make the entrance more welcoming and less confusing. The exhibits could use some rotation and a new welcome video could be put in place, but having the museum placed in the center of where the action of the Wild West took place certainly doesn’t hurt either. A really great aspect is that the museum has recently expanded upwards into the building for the library space so that students and anyone interested in local history can relax and enjoy their time without the pressure of being rushed through the books.

External factors that need to dressed are having some kind of signage that indicates the space is a museum, as one could easily walk past it and pay it little mind if they didn’t know what they were looking for. The museum boasts that they wouldn’t be able to many of the things they do if they did not have dedicated volunteers, but there is no mention of what the volunteers do or if there is any attempt being made to go out and engage the community or what the museum does to bring people inside.

The surrounding museums in the train depot, near the rodeo arena, and the State Museum all have a very large presence in the community year-round, but they have a peak season in which they get the visitor numbers up. The Nelson is in a special situation because it sits right in front of the historic homes that people tour all day long during rodeo season. If the Nelson is going to thrive, it needs to expand its mission to work itself into the community instead of standing on the periphery. In the 18 years I lived in Cheyenne, I remember driving past the front doors almost every day, and the same painting hung on the wall in front of the doors for about fifteen of those years. While not only bad for the painting, it suggests the museum is not offering new interpretations of what happened in the Old West and in Cheyenne, even though they have a substantial collection to work with, even claiming that it will, “continue to grow as new aspects of the history of the west are revealed.”

I believe once the museum engages the community, make some changes to be more engaging and inviting and sets itself from blocks of other Old West histories it will be able to accomplish this. For a visitor who was once a resident, I believe that a better, more well defined mission statement and interpretive plan could make even the oldest of locals come back time and again.


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