Buffalo Bill's attic

Buffalo Bill Museum
The Le Claire, Iowa, museum show.

Compared to the wide open spaces and manicured paths of Scout Ranch, the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa, takes a decidedly more chaotic and claustrophobic turn. Some clue can be found on its simple web site: “and other famous people” should be amended to read “other people and things.” Most of the objects and people commemorated here have nothing to do with the name attached to the museum; it’s as if an entire town cleaned its attic and sent it to this nondescript brick building for safekeeping.

Entering the front door, there was a small television with a built-in VCR, large model of a riverboat (cowboys and Indians rolling on the river?). A small girl came rushing up to greet us, and we paid the small fee. I didn’t see Buffalo Bill anywhere at first. The fundraising thermometer was targeted at “saving the Lone Star,” a boat moored adjacent to the building. I couldn’t understand the connection. I became increasingly confused as I looked at the exhibits. James Ryan’s desk. A flight recorder, next to an article about automobile bumpers designed by Ryan. A very curious Experimental Mechanical-Electrical Device. It seemed as if anything that might be labeled could be an exhibit, regardless of thematic connection. Horsehair coats. Helmets from WWI. Stuffed geese and fireman’s trousers. Feathered fashions from the early twentieth century. Stuffed owls, fire engines, outboard motors, and sleds.

But there were some interesting Buffalo Bill items too. Several glass cases held shrines. A poster rack displayed drawings from a local Boy Scout Troup in the early twentieth century that had drawn Bill with a rather angular face. A contemporary Jr. High class had a nice three-panel display. What was significant was not the presence of any “authentic” Buffalo Bill artifacts, but rather evidence of the impact the legend continued to have on the community. However, the Mississippi River looms larger in most of the displays; the project that seems to obsess the museum has nothing to do with buffalo or prairies at all.

The Lone Star is a creaky thing that hardly felt safe to step on. The parts, like the artifacts inside the museum, all wore careful labels. The paths were freshly constructed to avoid the rotted wood, and the engine parts were brightly painted. But the cobwebs were dense, and it was hard to move around the narrow doorways. There were no guides, no designated paths, and little or no structure to the inside of the museum. Onboard the boat, safety dictated otherwise.

In a weird way, you could say that the Buffalo Bill Museum presents a distinctively “vernacular” experience—complete with illustrated bibles from local families, high school yearbooks, and ephemera mostly of interest to the town residents. Scout Ranch, on the other hand, is what might be termed (though I hesitate to appropriate the term) a set of contemporary “image vernaculars.” Each red velvet rope, glass case, and neat museum tag is read as paratext for a “museum” experience. The little laser printed cards with Buffalo Bill’s picture on them the Iowa museum fit that “vernacular” only loosely, as if someone were attempting to learn “museum language” solely by attending and imitating other exhibit spaces. The glass cases were largely donated from shops and schools, not crafted specifically for the museum setting. It was a valiant and impressive attempt at professionalism without any real sense of what “curating” is supposed to accomplish.

The contrast between these places is deeply fascinating to me. At Scout Ranch in Nebraska, interiors were carefully choreographed while you were free to roam in the outdoors away from designated paths. At the Buffalo Bill Museum in Iowa, you could wander and touch virtually anything indoors while outside paths were constructed for the tourist’s safety.

I enjoyed both places, but for entirely different reasons. This pattern dominated, and significantly repeated, as we crossed into “gateway towns” from the “near west.”

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June 6, 2006 1:00 AM