Best of Montana Year-Round: Museums

Check out the four museums you must visit to experience what the Old West really was like, and to discover the unique history and heritage of the region.

C. M. Russell Museum, Great Falls

If you want to see what the Old West really was like, take a look at it through the eyes of someone who was there, famed Western artist Charles M. Russell. “Charlie” came to Montana in 1880 at age 16 to be a cowboy and stayed on as a multimedia artist until he died in 1926. He devoted his adult years to documenting cowboy and Indian life, including the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Today, the biggest collection of his work is housed in the 70,000-square-foot C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. Home to a 12,000-plus permanent collection that includes such exhibits as the Browning Firearms Collection and "The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture," the complex also features Russell’s former home and log cabin studio preserved just as it stood in the early 1900s.

Western Heritage Center, Billings

Through historic films, oral history recordings, and an ever changing lineup of exhibits, the Western Heritage Center tells the stories of the people and places of the Yellowstone River Valley and the northern High Plains region. There are interactive components in each exhibit, including toys, puzzles, and games; treasure hunts for kids; and the chance to learn Crow or Northern Cheyenne words on touch-screen kiosks. “The beauty of this museum is that there’s always something new to check out,” says the center’s business manager, Lisa Olmsted. “The variety keeps visitors coming back.”

Exhibits and events are built for varied audiences—such as dress-up clothes for the kids or the High Noon Speaker Series for adults. The theme of these free monthly talks for 2014 is the Montana Inspiration Project, which examines the creative process of local artists and musicians.

American Computer and Robotics Museum, Bozeman

Bozeman boasts a wealth of museums, but perhaps the most unexpected is the free American Computer and Robotics Museum. Devoted to the history and mystery of information technology, communications, and robotics, the museum houses an eclectic treasure trove of all things geek in a nondescript office park location. Among other finds waiting to be discovered include a rare reproduction of the Antikythera Mechanism, built in 80 B.C. and the first “computer” known to exist; a Gutenberg press; Civil War telegrams sent to and from President Abraham Lincoln; an original Apple 1 computer donated by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; and an assortment of robots and science fiction memorabilia.

Kids likely will be most intrigued by the museum’s more recent “ancient” artifacts, such as typewriters, Atari game consoles, and “the brick”—the first (and nearly two-pound) commercially available cellular phone sold by Motorola in 1984.

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Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell

“A visit to the Hockaday connects [Glacier National Park's] past to your personal experience of the park in the present,” says Tabby Ivy, a museum patron who has lived in Montana for more than 20 years. The Hockaday Museum of Art is unique because of its location—only 35 miles from Glacier—and its mission to preserve the artistic legacy of the national park.

The museum’s 8,000 square feet of exhibition space are filled with art and artifacts from the explorers and Indians in the Flathead Valley area. Visitors can see original paintings of the park created in the early 1900s, as well as art, artifacts, and memorabilia of the Northern Plains Indians and the Blackfeet Nation.

The museum’s permanent exhibition—"Crown of the Continent: Glacier National Park Gallery"—is a must-see, says Nicholas Oberling, an owner of Kalispell’s Glacier Art Academy. “Standing there amid the artwork, you can almost smell the park.”

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