The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is the only place in America where you can get a complete museum overview of the history (natural and human) of the West, and specifically the Yellowstone region. If knowledge expands your ability to appreciate what you see and experience (and it does), then this center is the one place to go to fill in your knowledge of how the Greater Yellowstone Region was formed (geology), populated with living things (the ecosystem), inhabited by native Americans, and explored, developed, and exploited by an expanding United States.
As with so many other things in this world, there are museums and then there are museums. While it may be a stretch to consider the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in the same breath with the Louvre or the Smithsonian, it is a world-class museum – or rather, five world class museums/interpretive centers:
- The Draper Museum of Natural History -– a highly interactive museum for all ages.
- The Cody Firearms Museum –- the premiere collection of American firearms in the world.
- The Buffalo Bill Museum –- documenting the life and times of America’s great showman.
- The Plains Indian Museum –- a thoughtful and memorable exploration of Indians’ lives.
- The Whitney Gallery of Western Art -– one of the great collections of Western art.
The quality of the exhibits -– content, presentation, organization – is first rate, which makes it easier to learn and enjoy.
The center’s website says, “The Best Hour You’ll Spend in the West!” Hour? If that’s all the time you have, you’ll either be super-frustrated or you’re so indifferent to museums that you should just skip it. Physically walking through the five museums could easily take six hours – and you’ll probably suffer from sore feet and sensory overload. A far more comfortable way to see the museums is to go in the morning for an hour or two, break for lunch in town, and return for the afternoon. For adults, this could easily total six or seven hours. For adults with young children, two to four hours. Yes, a whole day for one museum center – it’s that good.
One of the main questions most people have when entering this vast collection is “Where do we start?” Of course, there is no one way to see this center but here’s a suggestion: Start with the Draper Museum of Natural History. It’s a great place for kids (adults too) and it provides an overview of the fundamentals of this region and the mountain West – the geology and the ecosystem (plants and animals).
If there is one difficulty in seeing the museums (and it’s related to the overwhelming amount of material), it is stitching the relationships between them in your head. While it’s not too difficult to understand that the museums have something in common -– the West and its history -– it can be difficult to juggle all the specific things you’ll see into a semblance of a whole. Some of this difficulty is built into the nature of the museums. In terms of funding, collecting, mounting, and maintaining the exhibits, each museum is a little world until itself. The firearms collection, for example, has the largest and best collection of American firearms in the world, which more or less fits with the Western history theme of the center. It also has a fine collection of historical firearms from around the world, which is appropriate for a general firearms museum, but somewhat off-theme for the center. Similar “on theme, off theme” elements exist in most of the museums. This doesn’t detract from the quality or scope of the individual museums, but it can distract from the overall “history of the West” impression.
Probably because it is near the far end of the Cody Firearms Museum, many people miss the “Western Hunting Lodge” exhibit. For people who hunt, the collection of trophy animals in this exhibit is amazing (the individual animals change from year to year). For people who don’t hunt, or don’t even condone hunting, the physical presence of some of these huge (often world-record) mounted animals is a reminder of the magnificence of nature (make of it what you will for what they say about humanity). Children will be mightily impressed – and leave it to the adults to explain what it all means.
Details for Driving
Located on Cody’s main street, Sheridan Avenue, the center is on the west side of downtown on the highway toward Yellowstone. In short, you can’t miss it. Parking even in midsummer is not difficult, although you may wind up in auxiliary lots.
Admission (one day, all museums): Adult — $15, Senior (65+) — $13, Students (ages 13-18 with ID) — $10, Youth (ages 5-12) $6, Family — $40, Children under 5 -– free.