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Poster exhibition explores Buffalo Bill Wild West show’s mythmaking of the West

Posters were pasted on the side of buildings and featured in window displays in advance of the Wild West show performance.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Posters were pasted on the side of buildings and featured in window displays in advance of the Wild West show performance.

More than 30 posters printed over 100 years ago are part of a new exhibition at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Some of the posters feature characters from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and scenes that were reenacted during the performance.

Buffalo Bill Museum Curator Jeremy Johnston said part of the exhibition, “Advertising the Frontier Myth: Poster Art of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” looks at how the show was promoted and the printers who made the posters.

“But at the same time, we wanted people to stop and think about history and myth. So what we’re seeing in these posters is select events from the history of western expansion that become the myth of the American frontier,” he said.

Johnston said the Pony Express depicted in show posters is a great example of a legendary cultural icon that had a lasting mythic impression.

“The Pony Express only lasted for a year and a half, but thanks to Buffalo Bill, a lot of Americans assume every town had a Pony Express and it lasted through the 1860s to the end of the frontier in the 1890’s, which just simply isn’t true,” he said.

The exhibition also explores the challenges of caring for and preserving works of art that were printed on paper.

Buffalo Bill Museum Curatorial Assistant Sam Hanna co-curated the exhibition and said that he hopes people who visit can not only learn about the imagery in the posters and how these stories shaped our perceptions of the West, but also how to protect personal objects such as photographs and documents.

“We hope that they may be able to take home some tips that will help them better care for some of their own treasures: techniques to limit light exposure and selection of materials that will help them better handle and store their objects at home,” he said.

The exhibition includes interactive elements, like a magnifying glass to examine posters of varying quality, as well as a digital component where visitors can view posters not currently on display.

Some of the posters in the exhibition are being shown at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for the first time, including some from the Jack Rennert Collection recently acquired through Naoma J. Tate and the family of Hal R. Tate. The Center of the West has one of the largest collections of posters, including more than 300 originals that range from window to billboard size.

“Advertising the Frontier Myth: Poster Art of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” opens to the general public at the Buffalo Center of the West on Saturday and will run until October 24.

There are also two companion exhibitions: one from the Cody Firearms Museum that features firearms used by performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and another with related photographs from The McCracken Research Library.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.

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