Weekender: “The Only Thing Pink About Growing Up Cowgirl is a Sunset”

High Desert Princess

Take a day and visit Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Located in the Cultural District of Fort Worth, surrounded by art and science museums, the National Cowgirl Museum is a wonderful place to go for visual reminders of women’s strength and determination, seen in the faces and forms of cowgirls.

The Museum’s current collection of 11,000 artifacts (5,000 of which are paper documents) aren’t displayed all the time; according to Heather McMaster, the Museum’s Collections Manager, each artifact has specific guidelines for display.  The guidelines dictate the types of display cases, the humidity (usually 48% to 52%), the lighting, how much space must be allotted to each artifact, and even the time that the artifact can be displayed.  In addition, if the artifact is on loan from a donor or another museum, the “Deed of Gift” can further restrict press access, as well as the timing of the display.  That’s a lot of juggling for the Museum staff.

Planning exhibits and displays begins one to 1 ½ years in advance; the detailed planning takes about 4-6 months.  Museum staff must obtain the artifacts if they aren’t already on-hand, write text for the artifacts, acquire specially-built display cases, special lighting, and a few hundred more details that culminate in the new exhibit’s debut to the Museum visitors.

The Museum has permanent displays and exhibits; in fact, there are 4 permanent galleries, and the most recent addition is the Dale Evans exhibit, much of which was donated to the Museum personally, by Dale Evans herself.  Artifacts such as her saddle, shoes, eyeglasses, typewriter, and some manuscript pages can be viewed in a special Spotlight display.

The Museum also has a display that focuses on Annie Oakley, another legendary cowgirl.  “She was a woman ahead of her time,” McMaster commented, “encompassing both athletic ability and a lady-like demeanor.”  Oakley’s amazing shooting abilities led to a starring role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; one of the Museum’s photographs shows Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Moses) sitting in front of her tent, the epitome of a young lady taking her afternoon tea outdoors.

Other notable displays feature retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Tad Lucas, and Temple Grandin.  These women, McMaster said, “challenged the idea of “cowboy” in the American West, and became role models for other women.”  Justice O’Connor, after growing up on the Lazy B Ranch near Arizona, in 1981 became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Tad Lucas (born Barbara Lucas) began her professional rodeo career in 1917, and became known as the “world’s best female rodeo performer.”  Temple Grandin is famous for designing humane livestock facilities and for her research on livestock behavior.

Other exhibits are “travelling exhibits,” on loan from other museums, or donors.  And the National Cowgirl Museum responds in kind, loaning out artifacts to be displayed elsewhere, such as The Journey Museum in South Dakota, which specializes in artifacts of the Western Great Plains.  In fact, the Sandra Day O’Connor exhibit is packed and ready for travel for another museum’s fall exhibition.  Such exhibit loans can be from 6 months to 1 year.

One of the more popular travelling exhibits was the Apron Chronicles, which was “comprised of 150 vintage aprons, 46 framed photographic portraits and accompanying storyboards.”  Aprons not only were displayed in cases beside story panels, but also criss-crossed the ceiling like international flags.  McMaster described how the aprons came from different women, from the 1930s and 1940s.  The stories ranged “all over the map”.  Each panel in the exhibit told “the true stories of these women behind the aprons.  Since aprons are seen as icons of  “woman in the kitchen,” McMaster added, “the stories destroyed that stereotype.”

Hard Twist

Another travelling exhibit is on display now at the National Cowgirl Museum.  The current exhibit, “Hard Twist:  Western Ranch Women,” is displayed on the first floor of the Museum.  An impressive photography display by Master Photographer Barbara Van Cleve is open for public viewing until October 28, 2012.  The photographs show all aspects of a cowgirl’s life.  Some of the “regular ranch business” of branding cattle, horse and cattle round-ups, feeding livestock, vaccinating and treating livestock are pictured, but then other photographs capture the big skies, open spaces, and volatile weather that accompany any working cowgirl.  Still other photographs show generations of cowgirls with their families, digging out trucks from frozen mud, and handling an open sledge to feed livestock in several feet of snow.  In all of the photographs, though, one thing is perfectly clear:  strong women shine like the North Star.

Special thanks to Heather McMaster, for her amazing knowledge of the Museum’s collections, and to Cindi Collins, for her wonderful background lecture regarding the photography of Barbara Van Cleve