For more information, visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center Web site: www.bbhc.org
Cody, Wyo., is thick with buffalo. Their images dominate signs on main street. The Wyoming Buffalo Company sells buffalo summer sausage and buffalo-shaped cheddar cheese. Some 50 miles west, in Yellowstone National Park, wild herds of the real thing graze contentedly and charge the occasional careless tourist. Buffalo images in Cody are second only to likenesses of the town’s founder, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
At the entrance of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, aptly called “the Smithsonian of the West” by author James Michener, a large diorama of a buffalo bull, cow and calf greets visitors. Inside the Draper Museum of Natural History, the newest of the center’s five distinct museums, Free Fall, a massive two-story bronze sculpture, depicts life-size buffalo being driven over a cliff by American Indians.
Buffalo also pervade the spacious basement office of Bob Pickering (G84), the BBHC’s Collier-Read Deputy Director of Collections and Education. They serve as decoration but are also a thread that ties together his varied but interrelated careers — archaeologist, forensic anthropologist, educator and museum curator.
Pickering’s two daughters graced his office with their own mini version of a “buffalo jump” — a herd of small stuffed buffalo on a side table connected by fishing line to others cascading over the edge. Nearby are numerous bones from a buffalo’s forelimb, given to Pickering by a Yellowstone ranger who knew of his interest in bones. One wall features Trapped, a small oil study by Albert Bierstadt of three hungry wolves surrounding a lone buffalo. On Pickering’s crowded bookshelf is Seeing the White Buffalo, a slim volume he wrote that relates “about as much as is known about the white buffalo,” Pickering says.
Cody, in northwest Wyoming, is perfect for Pickering, whose affinity for buffalo matches the town’s. And the BBHC is also a match for the talents he developed over the past 30 years at field sites, in classrooms and at museums. His diverse experiences are a nice fit for so diverse a place as the BBHC.
In addition to the Draper Museum, the BBHC houses the Cody Firearms Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art and the Buffalo Bill Museum, some 300,000 square feet of museum space under one roof (see story, page 29). The breadth of the collections in each is as wide as the plains that Buffalo Bill scouted in his youth.
Yet the challenge for a museum at the northwest edge of those plains is to present its treasures to a wider audience than the quarter-million people who visit annually.
“As a former director said, ‘We don’t live on the edge of the world, but you can see it from here,’” Pickering says. “One thing we say, and not with a great deal of pride, is that we’re Wyoming’s best-kept secret. We shouldn’t be. For a long time, the idea was ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But it’s certainly not true.
“People have to make an effort to get here, so we have to do a better job of telling people why it’s important to come here.”
That challenge occupies a fair amount of Pickering’s time. He oversees collections, education and the center’s fledgling publications program, but his goal is to help stake a claim for the museum.
“We want to be the voice of the West,” he says. “You can’t understand the West, and you can’t understand Yellowstone without coming here.”
Becoming the voice of the West will take some doing, but Pickering is the right person to guide the effort, says Robert Shimp, BBHC executive director.
“Until just recently, we have been a pretty traditional museum from the standpoint of focusing on collections and exhibitions. Now we’re saying education is the focus of our future,” Shimp says.
That means not only enhancing the experience for visitors, but also conducting research, offering college-level seminars and establishing a publications program that allows scholars on site or elsewhere to research topics central to the BBHC’s mission.
The effort is off to a good start. The center has always excelled at presenting its collections and studying its famous neighbor, Yellowstone National Park. But now it is branching out. Last year the BBHC published a beautiful leather-bound 100th anniversary edition of Owen Lister’s The Virginian, the quintessential Western, complete with plates by Seattle artist Thom Ross. It also published a book of images by Cody photographer Jack Richard, who photographed the area from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The publications program is part of the Cody Institute for Western American Studies, which Pickering oversees. Its goals are to increase the amount and range of scholarly research that uses the collections of the BBHC and to reach distant audiences using a variety of media.
“I want us to be as well known for what we say as what we own,” Pickering says. “I think we are the premier museum of the American West, but we’re working much harder now to understand our audiences and to meet their needs.
“Museums are places that used to be object centered for good reasons — you acquire the object, and you take care of the object, and if the audience comes, that’s OK,” he says. “Now, for educational reasons and economic reasons, you can have the best collection in the world, but if you don’t pay attention to the audience, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
But audiences are paying attention, and so are similar institutions, says Brian Dippie, past president of the Western History Association and professor at Victoria University in British Columbia.
“The Buffalo Bill is a model museum for a comprehensive Western museum,” says Dippie, a BBHC library board member for seven years.
“The idea of putting five fairly discrete museums under one roof means it is by definition different from any other museum in terms of its comprehensiveness. It has served as a model for other museums.”
Aiming to be the voice of a region with a history as diverse and a geography as vast as the West is a “tall order,” Dippie says. The BBHC’s vision of combining first-rate collections with outreach beyond northwest Wyoming is ambitious but not unreachable, he says. “It’s not a mutually exclusive vision, but it is an extensive vision.”
The shift in vision at the BBHC sits well with Pickering, who has seen plenty of changes on his own career path. He’s fond of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s writing about life’s journey. When we are young, Campbell wrote, we make seemingly unrelated decisions, often on a whim. Age reveals how those decisions connect to form a path.
At 53, Pickering’s hindsight shows him his path may have been winding, but it is certainly connected. It began in Lawrenceville, a small southern Illinois town. His dad always said that Bob was a poor fisherman because he would drop a line in the water, then go comb the riverbank for arrowheads or bits of bone. Two high school teachers nurtured his interest and encouraged him to study anthropology.
Pickering went on to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which turned out to be a wonderful place to study anthropology. He pestered the staff at the university’s museum for a job. Soon it led to fieldwork in Illinois and Mexico.
While finishing his undergraduate degree, he met archaeologist and former Northwestern professor Jane E. Buikstra, whose insight impressed Pickering. She asked him to join her for fieldwork near the west central Illinois town of Kampsville, nestled along the west bank of the Illinois River about 40 miles north of Alton. Since the late 1960s, Kampsville has been home to the Center for American Archeology. It was perhaps the most vibrant archaeological field site in the Midwest, where many aspiring archaeologists cut their teeth.
Pickering moved between Kampsville, Carbondale and Mexico, spending up to eight months a year doing fieldwork. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years, he began working for Buikstra as a research assistant collecting data on skeletons excavated from sites along the Illinois River. The sites ranged in age from about 1,000 years old to more than 5,000 years old.
“Although initially I was interested in archaeology sites and the objects left behind, I quickly became interested in the bones. First, the animal bones that were the remains of food or bones used to make tools and other objects used by ancient people,” he says. “I then moved on to the study of human bones.
“To me, the study of bones was the intersection between biology, culture and environment. That was the nexus I wanted to study.”
But in 1975, he headed farther afield.
Buikstra recommended him for a Department of Defense job in Thailand, identifying remains of soldiers from Vietnam. Pickering developed his forensic skills, which he would use throughout his career. It also gave him fodder for a novel he recently completed.
After nine months the lab moved from Thailand to Hawaii, and Pickering decided to pursue his doctorate at Northwestern. There, his career path took another turn. While in school, he coordinated and taught adult education classes in a new program at Chicago’s Field Museum. It offered nearly 100 classes a year on topics from anthropology to botany to paleontology. He discovered a passion for adult education.
While working at the Field, Pickering was invited to write a children’s book for the “I Can Be” series for the Children’s Press. The 700-word I Can Be an Archeologist, which was featured on the PBS children’s literacy show Reading Rainbow, tested his writing abilities in making an intricate topic simple but enticing. The experience proved valuable as his path took another turn.
In 1988 he applied for a job as curator/educator of anthropology at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. A week after the interview, his children’s book was released, assuring him the job. “It was different from anything I’d done, but it was an extraordinary experience,” he says. “It was like doing a postdoc study in early childhood development. ... Children’s museums are the only museums defined by audience, not subject.”
After working with adult learners, Pickering had to adjust to the other end of the age scale. He discovered children’s learning styles had great bearing on exhibit presentation.
“A big thing, which has had lifelong implications for me, is the question, ‘Are learning and fun distinct from each other?’ What we decided at the Children’s Museum is that if there’s no fun, there’s probably not much learning.
“Having that experience changed the way I look at what museums do and what kinds of programs, exhibits and activities we should present,” he says.
His skills in adult education and museum science were in great demand. In 1991 he became curator of anthropology and chair of the anthropology department at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The position allowed him to hone his museum skills and return to fieldwork, examining 2,000-year-old shaft tombs of West Mexico. He not only studied the skeletons but also the ceramics in tombs, about which he has written, most recently in American Scientist, Archaeology and Investigaciónes y Ciencia magazines.
But when the Denver museum changed its focus, Pickering moved on. He landed some 500 miles north of Denver, in Cody, a town of 8,800 where it seems his personal and professional paths had been heading all along.
“There are three big reasons people go into anthropology — one, you become passionate about the people you study. The second is to use other cultures as mirrors to see ourselves. The third is to ask the big questions, like ‘How does culture work?’” he says. “I figured out in Denver that I’ve answered some of the questions, and for others, maybe there are no answers. Anthropology has done for me what I wanted it to do, but I’ve also become interested in how to use that knowledge. I’m passionate about museums and lifelong learning and how I can use my anthropological perspective to tell better stories, to create better experiences for people who come to the museum, because I think museums are critical cultural institutions.”
Kieran McConnellogue is a freelance writer based in Greeley, Colo. This is his third contribution to Northwestern.
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Visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center web site at www.bbhc.org .