Thursday, August 11, 2011

Debra Holland: Experiencing the West Through Museums

Experiencing the West Through Museums
by Debra Holland
Copyright © 2011 Debra Holland

Whether you write Westerns or you just want to get a more realistic feel for the American West, museums offer opportunities to expand your knowledge. Museums provide lectures, seminars, discussions, hands-on workshops, music and festivals, performing arts, family activities, and historical archives. In museums, you can find artifacts that you previously might have only seen in pictures, television, or movies. Or, perhaps you’ve never seen a certain object, but have read about it in a book. A museum is a place where history can come alive for you.

Many times history museums are in our own backyard. Either we don’t know about them, or we do, but have never been there, or we went once in grade school and never again. Yet museums can be a rich source of information, stirring your imagination while at the same time offering an interesting learning experience.

I remember visiting the Museum of Westward Expansion in St. Louis when I attended the Romantic Times Convention in that city. The only reason I toured the museum was because it was at the foot of the famous Gateway Arch. While I waited for my tour of the Arch, I wandered around viewing the exhibits. I was struck by how both the Native American tipi and the Conestoga wagon looked much smaller in reality than on television.

I peeked into the tipi and realized that a family would have very little room to live. Absolutely no privacy, especially in the winter. As for the wagon, I couldn’t even imagine how a family could store their worldly possessions, plus the necessary provisions, as well as any family members not old enough (or healthy enough) to walk. For a family to entrust their lives to such a wagon was a risk beyond any I’d want to take. But it gave me a vast appreciation for the courage and tenacity of the settlers who did so. And, if I were to write about living in a tipi or traveling on a wagon, I now would have more of a feel for those experiences.

While writing my first book, Wild Montana Sky, I contacted the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, (now called The Autry National Center because it merged with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Women of the West Museum) for permission to do research in their archives. The only reason I knew the Gene Autry museum existed was because I’d read an article about it in the newspaper.

I had a chance to tour the exhibits, paying special attention to a dress from the 1890s. I took careful notes, and wrote down the descriptions. My heroine in Wild Montana Sky wears that dress in her book.

In the archive room, the archivist had set out books and journals pertaining to the topics I was interested in--clothing, food, every day life in 1893 Montana. I perused the books, finding pages that interested me. The archivist made copies of information I wanted to take home with me. (I paid for the copies.) The Gene Autry museum provided an invaluable research experience.

Most museums have an extensive online presence, and you can find pictures and information without leaving your house. Many also have curators and archivists you can call or email with questions. A quick call or email might save you hours of research.

Explore museums in your local area. You might find a previously unknown (to you) museum where you can do some research. Or, you may discover one near a place you plan to go on vacation. You can add a research visit to your vacation plans.

Here’s a partial list of museums you might want to check out.
American History Museum (Oklahoma)
Booth Western Art Museum (Georgia)
Buffalo Bill Historical Center (Wyoming)
C.M. Russell Museum (Montana)
Colorado History Museum
Denver Art Museum
Eiteljorg Museum of the American Indian and Western Art (Indiana)
Gilcrease Museum (Oklahoma)
Joslyn Art Museum (Nebraska)
Missouri History Museum
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (Oklahoma)
National Museum of the American Indian (New York)
National Museum of Wildlife Art (Wyoming)
Rockwell Museum of Western Art (New York)
Seaver Center for Western History Research (California)
Stark Museum of Art (Texas)

Debra Holland, Ph.D is a psychotherapist and a three time RWA Golden Heart® finalist and one time winner. Wild Montana Sky, a sweet historical Western, won the GH in 2001 but didn’t sell (despite the efforts of two agents) because it was sweet, not sexy. In April, Debra took matters into her own hands and self-published Wild Montana Sky and the next book series, Starry Montana Sky.

One lucky commenter will win a free ebook of
Wild Montana Sky!!!


  1. Awesome review and I loved the blog. Get information also thta I was not aware of. Thank you for letting me read this great blog

  2. I've been to the Museum of Westward Expansion in St. Louis several times and learn something new each time I visit. Museums are great! I also really enjoyed the American History Museum at the Smithsonian - though I didn't get to spend as much time there as I wanted to. I do plan to go back though.


  3. It is great that there are so many Museums to explore and get authentic facts for books.. I love western thened books and love to gather all the history from the books that I read..


  4. Museums are an all-time favorite of mine! When my husband and I go on vacation, we spend most of our time in museums. Some of the very best are in small towns and are only open maybe one day a week. The curator is in love with the local history and you can find out just about anything. People love, love, love to talk about their home town history. What a goldmine for western historical writers. :)

  5. Enjoyed the post, ladies.

    I had the chance to visit the
    Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles (It was still called that when I went.) Museums are a great place for info. I love museums and try to search one out when we travel to a new place. I like to know the history of the city I'm visiting.

    It's wonderful to see the items and not just read about them. :)

  6. Great post! I loved the review!



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