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"To Collect, Preserve and Interpret" Permanent Exhibition at National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum


The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City has installed a permanent exhibition in the Robert and Grace Eldridge Gallery titled "To Collect, Preserve and Interpret." The show informs the public as to the mission of the Museum and how decisions regarding acquisitions are made. The exhibit will be periodically updated with information about different facets of collecting, preserving and interpreting the Museum's growing collections.

The purpose of the exhibit is to provide visitors insight into what the Museum is about, how it makes decisions regarding collections acquisitions, how it provides care for the collection, and how the collection is used. A feature that separates the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum from other Western art and heritage institutions is its critical attention to selecting items that will fit into telling the story of the West.

The decisions and planning that go on behind the scenes often surprise the ordinary Museum visitor who wonders why the lighting in the galleries is low, and why flash cameras are not allowed in certain areas. Frequent questions include "How much of the Museum's collections are on display and why is that little monitor in the gun case?" Visitor interest in Museum operations prompted the curatorial staff to create an exhibition that addresses frequent inquiries. The Eldridge Gallery is a perfect fit for exhibiting new acquisitions and drawing from the vast holdings of interpretive materials in the Museum's Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center.

"The act of collecting is a basic human trait that, on a personal level, may reflect relation to the past, aesthetic appreciation, scientific inquiry or simple material acquisitiveness," said Mike Leslie, the Museum's assistant director. "The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum currently retains some 120,000 items in its permanent collection," he said, "a collaborative endeavor among private collectors, public dealers, devoted patrons and Museum professional staff charged with collections acquisitions."

The exhibit also features work collected under the A. Keith Brodkin Contemporary Western Artists Project designed to collect archival material from living Western artists. Under the auspices of the Dickinson Research Center, the Brodkin Program will preserve a little documented facet of contemporary Western art for generations to come.

Each object in the exhibit is accompanied by a label that describes the process involved in its specific acquisition, preservation and interpretation. One exhibit case is devoted to recent military acquisitions, and includes a military trade catalog, a dress helmet and a cabinet card photograph. The trade catalog sports an "Interpret" label, and the text tells the reader "Unlike enlisted men, military officers were not supplied with uniforms and equipment by the government, but purchased them from specialty dealers." These catalogs aid in researching and documenting both regulation and non-regulation military goods in a particular era.

The visitor also is given a glimpse into what takes place behind the scenes in Museum collections. Storage methods, remedial conservation, pest management and record keeping all play important roles in the long term preservation of the collection.

"All three museum functions -- collecting, preserving and interpreting -- are dynamic, ever-changing and interrelated," said Melissa Owens, the Museum's Registrar. "The three functions are a vital part of the mosaic of activities that give museums their distinct character."

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