Is there a more evocative word in the English Language? Not if you are trying to express the American sense of myth and adventure. I remember my childhood dream of becoming a cowboy. Also, when our son was given a real lasso by a rodeo rider we met in the southwest, it came with a few lessons and when we returned to New York he practiced on fire hydrants!
“Cowboys: Real & Imagined“ the current exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum juxtaposes the cowboy in reality and how he has been romanticized. Growing up with the fantasy of being a cowboy the latter interested me more but the presentation of real cowboy life was educational. I like to learn and be entertained at the same time!
The show was curated by Byron Price Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma. Before that he was director at The National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming among others. He was also editor of Charles M. Russell catalogue raisonné in 2007.
Who better qualified to do a cowboy exhibition? We heard him lecture at the History Museum at the time of the opening. Before he spoke we learned from the museum director, Fran Levine, that they had originally given Mr. Price 3 years to do the show and then cut one year off. Remember at school when you thought you had the semester to finish a project and then found out you only had half the semester? I need say no more.
Mr. Price focused his talk on the five most influential people in promoting the cowboy myth: President Theodore Roosevelt, William Cody aka Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show lasted until 1913, the sculptor Frederick Remington, the painter Charles Russell and the writer Owen Wister. While the names of the first four were familiar Wister was not, and he was extremely important to the myth of the west. He was a classmate of Teddy Roosevelt at Harvard with whom he became friendly. Spending summers out west where he met Frederick Remington, he became captivated by the lore of the region and started writing Western novels. In 1902 he published “The Virginian” which sold millions of copies. It inspired a stage show, 5 films and the 1960’s television series.
The exhibition commences with the reality of the cowboy. Not a comfortable life. By the time you were 30 you were considered old to be riding herd. We are shown the authentic gear and equipment of the cowboy drawn from the museum’s collection and some loans. Cattle ranching came into its heyday in the middle of the 19th century. Near the end of the 19th cattle herds of hundreds of thousand of head are not unheard of. But by the beginning of the 20th century with the industrial age and the use of barbed wire to contain the cows the cowboy had less to do and his role began to wane but the myth continued.
To put you in the mood when you walk into the show you hear a continuous soft background noise of cows and horses. It is not intrusive but disorients you enough to take you back to yesteryear.
The show is an amalgam of objects giving the spirit of the west as we think of it through all the films we have seen with the accent on the real thing. The chuck wagon where the food was prepared for the cowboys on the range is a centerpiece. A huge washtub also sits in the middle of the gallery along with many different types of barbed wire and one of the view cameras that actually recorded the Old West and are there as well.
Along the perimeter of the show there are more hats, saddles, boots and lariats of different types than you can possibly imagine and they all have different uses. I was particularly interested in the Lariat or Lasso. I learned that various materials were used. Both the Indians and cowboys used horsehair or horse hide and even bison hide. Those made with horsehair were rather thin and they were used as lead ropes to lead the animals. The heavier ones made of hide and later hemp were for actually catching animals. Weight and length of the rope depended on how much the cowboy could handle. Every cowboy had a rope on his saddle for roping cows, used for the business of herding. Obviously, most of what we see today in rodeo are activities originally used on the range.
One of the areas set off from the main presentation is dedicated to entertainment with a barroom, playing cards, books and the sounds of the songs of Stephen Foster. In the final section I found a number of videos of famous cowboy films. There was even a Belgian poster for “Lonely are the Brave” 1962 with Kirk Douglas. A large poster of the 1950’s Marlboro Man surrounded by other advertising materials illustrated the power of the cowboy image in marketing.
At the exit were a few pictures of famous people who dressed in Western gear: Ronald Reagan, Bill Richardson, the previous governor of New Mexico, and, I do not know for what occasion, but there was Barack Obama in a cowboy hat!
The exhibition closes March 16, 2014, after which parts of it will travel to the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. I certainly hope the catalog which at this moment is under consideration actually comes to fruition.