Renovated Firearm Museum Wants To Add Context To Gun History

Jun 28, 2019

On Saturday July 6, the newly renovated Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West will reopen its doors to the public. It's long been home to one of the largest firearm collections in the world. The museum is trying to move away from just a display of guns to telling a story of the role of firearms in American culture.

Ashley Hlebisnky, the curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, led me through the recently remodeled galleries. It doesn't look like a typical gun museum. There are brightly colored cases lined along the walls. They are filled with firearms, from antique firearms from the Wild West period to modern automatic rifles and handguns. And in the middle of the first room, you can learn how to handle a gun safely. Visitors can even practice a bolt action.

Hlebinsky beckoned me into the next gallery.

Entrance of the newly renovated Cody Firearms Museum.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

"We're walking into the military history gallery. One of the first things you see is this really large wall that has the words, 'Cost of War' on it and subtitled, 'few human endeavors are as costly as armed conflict,'" said Hlebinsky.

Hlebesnky said the military history section of the newly remodeled Cody Firearms Museum is the gallery she's proudest of, as it addresses one of the main objectives of the renovated museum.

"Culture has changed in the past 20 to 30 years, and one thing we really wanted to do was recognize that we have a diverse audience," she said.

A diverse audience may have different reactions and opinions on guns. The museum has been around for a long time, but mostly it was gun collectors and gun enthusiasts that wandered in. The remodel wants to make sure that it provides context. In order to do that, Hlebinsky recruited not only firearm historians but also academic historians who are not focused on guns.

"Visitors will have a relationship with firearms that is associated with the harsh reality of gun violence, [like] frontier violence, suicide, mass shooting, domestic violence and injuries," said Jennifer Tucker, a historian of technology and visual culture at Wesleyan University.

Tucker is one of those academic historians. She at the helped the museum look at guns through the lens of her expertise: technology and visual culture.

"One could look at the relationship of public health, labor, policing and also legal history," said Tucker. "Contrary to its name, the Wild West contributed to some of the first gun control laws."

How guns work section.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

The museum also recruited a professional museum designer to ensure it was interactive. Patrick Gallagher, the owner of Gallagher and Associates, said the museum can't ignore that daily news is bringing negative connotations about guns.

"They [guns] are part of the historical language of the country and because we are in a polarized time in the country they can be a flashpoint but they can also be a teaching moment," said Gallagher.

He said he hopes people who may not be the biggest fan of guns can leave the museum feeling like they learned something.

"You may not walk out and say, 'I now fully respect gunowners,' but you'll have a different perspective," said Gallagher. "We're not there necessarily to win people over, we're just there to able to help them open their eyes."

The newly remodeled gun museum will reopen next week. The hope is the new permanent museum will facilitate a healthier dialogue around guns.