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A poster exhibition considers the history and mythmaking of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

An exhibit of two Buffalo Bill show posters that have been preserved differently.
Olivia Weitz
Wyoming Public Media
Visitors are invited to use a magnifying glass and flashlight to compare two posters that have used different conservation techniques.

Millions more people saw the posters that advertised Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show than the performance itself. That’s according to poster art expert Jack Rennert, who authored the book, “100 Posters of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.”

Before show performances in American cities, according to Rennert, posters with characters and scenes from the show were pasted on buildings and put up on fences, sometimes within a 200 mile radius of where the show took place.

These posters offer a window into how the show helped shape the history and myths of the West. Now, a new exhibition opening at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West also explores the challenges of preserving and displaying these posters printed more than 100 years ago.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz spoke with Curatorial Assistant Sam Hanna about the new exhibit and the careful steps taken to display the posters for the show.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Olivia Weitz: Tell us about the poster exhibition. What's it about? And what are some of the topics that people will learn about when they visit?

Sam Hanna: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West did much to shape the world's perception of the American West, and to a degree, America as a whole. To this day, there are some people who think that all Americans wear cowboy hats, and that's in no small part due to the images that were submitted into popular consciousness during the Wild West show’s decades of touring around the globe. This exhibition will look at some of the themes presented by the Wild West show that served to create this lasting imagery associated with the West. And we'll examine the publishing history of the show's posters. We'll also look at some of the challenges in caring for these works.

OW: I know it's hard to pick a favorite, but I'd love to hear about what's one of the posters that you're excited about. Tell us about it. Give us a visual of that poster.

SH: Well, thank you for not asking me to pick a favorite. But there are some that I find particularly interesting. At times, we see examples of different publishers sharing artwork, usually with simple changes to texts, such as changes in language between U.S. and European printers. And the two that I'm specifically thinking of right now are a case of artwork shared by the Courier Company of Buffalo, New York, and the printer Weiners of Paris. They depict Buffalo Bill reviewing various military personnel from around the world. What's notable about these posters is that the art is modified in the French version to place the French soldier more centrally in the image and closer to Buffalo Bill. I find these interesting, because at first glance, they appear to be almost duplicates. But there are subtle differences upon examination that make them all more special.

OW: Sam, I've heard you talk about these posters as works of art in and of themselves. And there's going to be more than 30 original posters that are on display. What really sets them apart visually?

SH: These posters are what would herald the coming of the show. They were visually engaging with spectacular artwork. They drew the audience to the show. And these were likely the imagery that stayed with [viewers] long after they saw the spectacle. What really stands out for me, though, about these particular ones in the show, is that some of them are on the order of 140 years old at this point. And they're still in wonderful condition [even though] as ephemera … they were never meant to survive. They were never meant to stick around. They were meant to be torn down or posted over. So the fact that they're here is very, very special.

OW: Tell us about what's challenging about conserving and preserving these posters. What kind of conditions or situations caused them to deteriorate?

SH: The delicate nature of paper itself is the major challenge and the main challenge in preserving these posters. Exposure to light, especially sunlight, variations in temperature and humidity, and damage due to handling are our main concerns and the main things that we try to control.

OW: The Buffalo Bill Center of the West has one of the largest collections of original Buffalo Bill posters. Sam, can you take us behind the scenes of the museum and tell us about how the museum cares for these posters in ways that help ensure that these posters last long into the future?

SH: Our goal with all of our objects is to preserve them for as long as possible, so they’ll be available for future generations. To care for them, we manage the factors that we were discussing earlier. Light levels are kept to a minimum and exposure is minimized during non-viewing hours. Temperature and humidity are closely monitored and controlled. And care is taken to handle objects properly and only when required.

OW: Do you ever get the question of why doesn't the museum display these posters all the time? Why can't you just come in and see all these posters?

SH: We are asked very frequently about works that a guest may have seen on display in the past. And hopefully sections of this exhibition will answer that. Regular rest in the darkness of our vaults is a necessary part of our care for works on paper such as posters.

OW: When you talk about that resting period, what does that look like as far as how long things are on display, and then how long they typically rest for?

SH: Our goal is to rest an object for two years, after six months of display time.

OW: When people come to the exhibition and learn about some of the challenges of preserving these posters, what do you hope they take away?

SH: We very much hope that people come away with a greater appreciation of these works and some of the stories they tell. And as much of this applies to documents, photographs and more, 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.

OW: The exhibition, called, “Advertising the Frontier Myth: Poster Art of Buffalo Bill's Wild West,” opens on May 18. People get to see these posters up close, and it sounds like there's also some interactive components to it. Tell us about that.

SH: In the section about care of paper, people will be able to closely examine a poster using a flashlight and magnifying glass and search for and identify various types of damage to the paper. They will also be able to view digital images of posters that are not currently on exhibit. And they'll even be able to join the show by including themselves in a Wild West poster.

OW: Wow, that sounds so fun! Thanks Sam for joining us. Sam Hanna is the curatorial assistant of the Buffalo Bill Museum. He co-curated a new exhibition on posters used to advertise Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

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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