Bison, art, free fun and a day out: find four reasons to love the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum with your children
Oklahoma City family fun breaks through our usual routines of busy days and winter nights.
Sometimes, getting all six of my family members going to the same location at the same time feels impossible. We have a family car, a Traverse where all of us fit, and on the weekends, at least for one outing, I like to fill out with the people it's intended for instead of fulfilling a bad stereotype that an SUV intended for eight people is usually only used by one person. The time we spend in that car going somewhere is important, no matter where we're headed.
It's what we do, besides everything else, training for runs and archery practices and one child going off here or there. This season has felt long and although I love routine, everyone needs a break from the same week-in-week-out things to do.
One destination we're loving lately is the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It's a place I keep tabs on to check out what's new, the latest exhibitions and author visits. I didn't know the museum has actually been here a long time. Carrie Bond, coordinator of school and family programs, mentioned having visited as a child on a field trip and that the venue has changed significantly since then.
The concept that venues improve over time, shift their focus and become something better than what we remember is key if you're from this area and visited previously. You may not remember exact details of what you saw on that middle school field trip a couple decades ago but you probably do recall how it made you feel and if the experience wasn't optimal, coming with your own kids isn't likely.
I didn't grow up in Oklahoma so I don't have that point of reference but I do know that what I'm seeing now is intended for families. And it's different every time we go. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is one of the places I can announce I'm going in my household and my husband wants to come too. We went just last week to their free Saturday for Kids activity, which is a hands-on session hosted the first Saturday of every month, and when I wanted to come return for this weekend's new "Ancient. Massive. Wild. – The Bison Exhibit," I was surprised my family agreed to come with me, no coaxing needed.
And it might be that we are really chasing after some version of ourselves, the best one that enjoys art in public with wide stares and children on their best behavior. I didn't even have to mention that Rumble, the Thunder's mascot, will be at the event on Saturday. The art itself will be around until May.
Where I did grow up, mostly anyway, was near the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, now known as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The nostalgia I feel as we look over the implements of ranch, farm and indigenous life takes me back to summers spent with 4H sheep and friends who helped us saddle horses for long afternoons. What I don't remember is anyone taking a watch or a phone or worrying about where exactly we were. Some of those elements still feel true even as we stare at it all behind glass, removed from our daily life and totally foreign to my husband, who is from Costa Rica. What's exotic and interesting is a matter of perspective.
The appeal of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for families has some universal aspects. Here are four reasons you should come out this Saturday or just in general with your family:
- We could all use the outing: The Polar Vortex hasn't really hit Oklahoma but today's freezing drizzle and gray skies remind me that the winter has felt long. We've been around the house enough for one season. I am thankful Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow this Groundhog Day because spring's arrival has never felt so far off somehow. Get everyone out of the house and enjoy a day together. We always go to Gabriella's, which is an Italian restaurant right next to the museum for lunch after. The Saturday for Kids programed activities are from 10 a.m. to noon so that's perfect for an outing that won't take all day; this Saturday's bison exhibit is that same schedule.
- Everyone likes free admission: Free opportunities to visit the museum are something every family can agree is a plus about visiting; the first Saturday of every month is that day for families who come to the activity and there are other chances to visit without charge throughout the year. Designated programs are offered minus admission or other costs for kids and their accompanying adults, which means you can do something together in a guided way with information and instruction by museum staff then tour the exhibitions, including Prosperity Junction, a ghost town that brings the old west to life.
- There are family amenities: Baby carts, old-fashioned metal ones for older babies old enough to sit up on their own, are available at the admission desk. I had no idea the museum had those around; my youngest is 10 months and that's about the right age to make use of them. Restrooms are in convenient locations and this isn't the kind of museum where kids have to be silent or followed by a docent. The culture around taking small kids to museums has really changed in the past decade.
- The art is outstanding: The exhibitions are engaging and there are many hands-on areas, including a rodeo arena, but what's really beautiful about the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is its variety of art, from permanently-housed sculpture, wood carvings and paintings to travel exhibitions like the bison-themed collection circulated by the National Buffalo Foundation that premieres this weekend. Seeing creativity on display and what people are capable of making gives children a frame of reference for their own art, as well as developing an appreciation of history and nature.
A new children's area will also open at the museum next year set to include dining options for families and expanded project spaces.
My family loves the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and we aren't alone. There's a social media campaign with the #heartsforart and #mywest hashtags happening now through Feb. 14. Kids are given a paper heart and parents can share their photos next to the featured items children identify as what they love. Just letting them do that makes them experience art in a way that's relevant and memorable.
I'm also looking forward to the Bison Bonanza: Family Sleepover, which is happening the Friday of Spring Break, March 15. Children watch a documentary about buffalo and make an enrichment snack for the bison at the Oklahoma City Zoo, which they go to visit with local zookeepers after spending the night at the museum. My first-grader loves animals and I can see that being a stand-out activity for a parent and child; the $55 cost seems reasonable and each additional child is $20.
Museums, like cars and family life, are standby institutions that have so much to offer. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum doesn't disappoint. Start your weekend off with bison and hearts and time together. See you there?