Originally published in Points West magazine
A Natural Addition: Rationale and Status of a Natural History Museum
Charles R. Preston, PhD
Willis McDonald IV Senior Curator of the Draper Natural History Museum
Ed. note: This article is from a series describing the role of natural history museums and plans for the Center’s own natural history museum leading up to its opening in 2002.
Cody, Wyoming, is situated in one of the most spectacular and diverse natural settings in North America. Within a day’s drive of downtown Cody, you can spot a mountain goat picking his way through clusters of delicate, alpine forget-me-not on a steep, alpine slope, or scare up a black-tailed jackrabbit hiding behind sagebrush or alkaline-loving saltbush in a high desert basin. This is a region where elk, deer, and moose fill forests and meadows, native cutthroat trout swim clear, braided rivers, and grizzly bears and gray wolves are still around to create excitement and controversy. Golden and bald eagles soar overhead, and swans add an air of majesty to the waterways.
The landscape itself is a larger-than-life panorama with heroically-proportioned scars, won through a tumultuous history of volcanoes and earthquakes. Plumes of hot, sulfuric gasses and spewing geysers serve to remind us of the awesome, molten energy seething only miles beneath the surface. Our neighborhood includes the first national park in the world, Yellowstone, and our first national forest, the Shoshone. Grand Teton National Park and six other national forests help complete the neighborhood. More than three million people from around the world visit our region each year, in large part to experience and learn about its natural history.
The environment and natural resources of northwestern Wyoming have exerted a profound effect on the lifestyles, history, literature, and art of the people visiting and living in this region. In turn, human cultures have influenced many aspects of our environment. Much of the economy of this region continues to be tied to our environment through ranching, oil and mineral exploration and extraction, ecotourism, hunting, fishing, and more. Yet, the story of the bond between nature and human endeavors in our region goes largely untold and poorly understood by visitors.
With these thoughts in mind, trustees and staff began discussing plans for the addition of natural history programming to the Center several years ago. Two popular past natural history exhibitions, Seasons of the Buffalo and Unbroken Spirit, have been featured at the Center. And, as discussed in the Summer 1999 issue of Points West, Center trustees and staff have begun planning the proposed addition of a new natural history museum to our existing facility. Trustee Nancy-Carroll Draper moved the initiative to the forefront of our long-term plans with her boundless passion and generous financial commitment. Current plans call for the natural history museum to be housed in a new wing to be added to the southeastern face of the Center, symmetrical with the existing northeastern wing that houses the Cody Firearms Museum. The new wing will be equal in size to its northeastern counterpart, and will house offices and classrooms for education, in addition to exhibition spaces for natural history.
By virtue of our geographic location, resources, and status as a premier humanities-based institution, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has an opportunity to establish a world-class natural history museum quite apart from traditional, free standing natural history museums. Rather than trying to present natural history around the world, our new natural history museum will focus on our own compelling region, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the surrounding forests and mountain ranges, and adjacent basins. Instead of presenting nature as a pristine ideal, somehow apart from humankind, we will emphasize relationships between humans and environment throughout our exhibits and programming. Indeed, the anchor thread connecting the natural history museum to the Center’s rich, humanities-based tapestry, is the profound influence exerted by the environment on western cultures and by western cultures on our environment. The concept of establishing an ideas-based, geographically focused natural history museum that emphasizes the relationship between human cultures and nature is truly innovative. It represents a significant departure from the traditional model followed by natural history museums established during the last two centuries. We believe our approach will be more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences, and far less expensive to operate and maintain.
Tentative plans for the natural history museum at Center include an introductory gallery addressing how and why humans have explored nature during the past few hundred years, and the major geological processes that have shaped our focus region. Plans also include a grand hall, highlighting alpine, forest, meadow, and shrub-grassland ecosystems in the region. Within each ecosystem, we will explore climate, geology, flora and fauna, but we will also examine historical and contemporary presence and influence of humans. For example, within the forest ecosystem, our audiences will learn about the importance of fire and the use and control of fire by various cultures in achieving human goals. In the meadow ecosystem, visitors will explore a beaver lodge (partially cut away to expose the inner sanctum) and learn how important the fur trade was to western exploration and worldwide economics. We will present these compelling stories with the help of geological, biological, and cultural artifacts, magnificent artwork and photographs from our own collections, and a variety of low- and high-tech participatory experiences for visitors of all ages. Long-term plans also include a “cross-currents” theater to address current issues, an outside garden to highlight local geology, a photography gallery, a temporary exhibits gallery, and a family discovery center. Natural history also provides us the opportunity to expand the walls of the museum to present more field-experiences for our audiences.
A groundbreaking date for the new natural history museum remains undetermined pending completion of the exciting  Plains Indian Museum reinstallation, completion and board approval of architectural and exhibit design elements for the new wing, and the success of our now-public capital campaign. The Center is already a magnificent resource for preserving and interpreting the rich cultural history of the American West. The establishment of the Draper Natural History Museum will help us expand our story and our audiences by interpreting the environment of the West. It will also allow us to contribute further to the dialogue that will shape the future our legendary region of the world.