Mark Davis Powell Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — While touring the brand new exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, former U.S. Senator Al Simpson was mesmerized by a new take on Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser.
The kitschy neon artwork, titled ‘My Trip to Yellowstone’ and created in 2017 by Willem Volkersz, stood out in the eclectic collection of art, taxidermy, vehicles and artifacts that cleverly tracks the evolution of Yellowstone National Park.
“Yellowstone, For the Benefit and Pleasure of the People,” opened March 19 in the Anne and Charles Duncan Special Exhibit Gallery. Center staff offered pancakes as a sort of birthday breakfast on the 150th anniversary of the first national park.
“I just came for breakfast,” Simpson joked, though he shrugged off cakes and syrup to be one of the first to see the exhibit.
He allowed himself to drift into personal recollections, inspired by the work of curators Jeremy Johnston, Emily Buckles and Karen Brooks McWhorter in bringing together the collection of museum-owned and loan items. Many of the pieces had never been seen at the museum before, including four magnificent oil paintings of hard-to-reach waterfalls in the park by MC Poulsen.
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Born in 1931, Simpson said he remembered seeing open coaches full of excited tourists hurtling down dusty dirt roads to the park from the community of Cody.
“My brother and I would sit there and count them,” he said, flashing a broad smile. “There would be 25 or 30 a day in the summer.”
At the time, the Center of the West was only an open-air quarry.
“We found arrowheads there,” Simpson recalled.
The statesman often went to the park. But it was different back then, he says.
“We were going to the park and dad and mom and my brother Pete [Simpson] just sitting on the shore of the lake. We would gather a pile of rocks and harvest twigs and fry a steak or burgers and sing songs,” he said. “You could get awfully close to things – there were no walkways. You just had to be very, very careful. You could walk to the cone from Old Faithful which was not a good thing.
Drifting further into his memories, he described trips inside the park. “The saddest thing is that I used to go there on horseback or on foot and I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “But all the memories are still there.”
Examples of park operations are shown throughout the displays. Short interpretive paragraphs bring guests back to the beautiful artwork romanticizing the park’s early days, with descriptions of fishermen using dynamite to harvest trout and hunters, trappers and miners using the park for purposes. lucrative. He sadly recounts tourists dumping rubbish in Old Faithful just to see it come up in eruptions.
Had train companies been able to convince officials to extend branch lines into the park, the natural wonders and wildlife that now exist might have been lost, Simpson added.
He remembers that in the past, the superintendents “wore the big hats and the brown shirt, but you never saw them”.
Not so with Cam Sholly, who Simpson says looks to the future of the park and does a good job of balancing the experience with protecting natural resources. The former senator also shared feelings of hope for the future of Gateway Communities, saying Sholly is “more aware than any superintendent we’ve ever had of the care and education of Gateway Communities.”
Curators of the new Center of the West exhibit didn’t make excuses or whitewash the park’s history.
McWhorter, who is the director of education for the center’s curators, said that due to being the first-ever national park, Yellowstone was an experiment.
“[That’s] what we are trying to achieve; these competing interests,” she said. “We were trying to make sense of how to use the space, and really, how to protect it.”
McWhorter noted that conservation concepts have changed a lot since Yellowstone was founded, “but there were a lot of people wondering what to do with this world’s first national park.”
She is hopeful, saying she thinks the conservation of Park Service properties is going in an “increasingly thoughtful” direction.
According to the museum’s brochure for the exhibit, “People’s concerns about economic development, conservation, or the preservation of Yellowstone’s ecosystem have long generated tension and debate about how best to shape the benefits and enjoyments of the region”.
Visitors to the show are guided through the intriguing, yet sometimes sad story of how many diverse cultures have shaped their interactions with unique natural resources, influencing the ecosystem and themselves for thousands of years.
“From early Indigenous peoples to modern visitors, diverse identities and cultures have benefited from the extraction of natural resources from the area, in addition to enjoying the natural wonders of Yellowstone’s ecosystem,” the brochure states.
McWhorter said the park’s natural resources continue to be tested by its popularity.
“It’s not a zoo, so it’s a balancing act,” she said.
She also sought a balance between the art styles depicting the park.
“I’m very drawn to contemporary artists struggling with contemporary issues, but I’ll always be a fan of beautiful, technically competent work,” McWhorter said. “There is room for both.”
The exhibit will be on display until January 29, 2023. Yellowstone’s east entrance, west of Cody, will open for the summer 2022 season on May 6.