Even though I’ve lived in Arizona for most of my life and my son is an Arizona native, there’s a lot we don’t know about the history of our state. And while I hoped my teen would be interested in learning about our region’s rich culture, I wasn’t confident that a collection of Western artifacts and art would hold his attention more than his smartphone.
I was pleasantly surprised during our recent visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
The exhibitions in the 43,000-square-foot museum cover the culture, history and people of the American West, spanning 19 states including Arizona.
One of the first things we noticed in the museum was the tranquil atmosphere: not somber and stuffy, but laid-back and inviting. Combined with the elegant architecture and the air conditioning on a hot day, it was heavenly.
Heading out from the front desk is a “path” of wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling, leading to the museum’s theater, which hosts everything from screenings of old Westerns to educational talks. At the moment, though, we wanted to explore.
One of the first exhibitions we checked out was “The Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History,” which is on display through September 23. One of the largest collections of Western film posters and lobby cards dating from the 1890s to the 1980s, the exhibit illustrates the evolution of graphic artists’ work and of the movies themselves as they reveal Hollywood’s version of the Old West.
The display caught my son’s eye immediately, the bold colors and dramatic lettering of the posters drawing him in. And though he’s never shown interest in Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, he immediately began offering feedback: This movie looks fascinating, that one looks like it represents things very differently from how we would today, these movie posters are funny, surprising, romantic. From Stagecoach and Grapes of Wrath to silent films and early animated features, the vivid display draws everyone in, even if they’re not cowboy film aficionados.
And that was the theme throughout the museum: You might get a bit extra out of the exhibits if you’re a huge fan of the memorabilia, history or genres, but everyone is drawn in.
Paintings illustrate Native American culture, steely cowboys, wildlife, pioneer living and much more. Each time, my son read the placard beside the artwork, describing not only the artistic vision and inspiration but the culture that informed the artists’ work. I don’t want to get any teachers in trouble, but he may have remarked a time or two that he was learning more here than in some history lessons.
It’s not all two-dimensional art. The museum also boasts collections of saddles, spurs, boots, guns, knives, katsina dolls, pottery, clothing and more, often arranged to feel natural, like you might have just wandered into these artifacts: Velvet rope and red carpet lead visitors through Western movie posters; spurs, ropes, and saddles rest over a hitching post; and a saloon and “trading post” frame a larger collection of Western memorabilia.
The museum was established with families and kids in mind – with the hope that children living here will grow up with a sense of the history behind their home – and it shows. Activity tables, toys, games, and puzzles join the bronze sculptures and paintings. If your kids want to play, the museum has you covered.
One thing you should make sure to check out: Wade Weber’s “Essence of the West,” a modern work that plays with perspective to create a unique view of an Old West town. Keep your eyes on the painting as you walk by. It’s a favorite with kids – and probably adults too. It was also the only time my son took out his phone: to try to record the experience.
The American West is a story – or rather, several meandering, overlapping stories – and the Museum of the West tells the stories well.
if you go
What: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West
Where: 3830 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale
Info: 480-686-9539, scottsdalemuseumwest.org