Here’s the story of how a museum nearly closed but instead reinvented itself with a brand new building and a major American Indian art collection. The new incarnation of the Brinton Museum in Big Horn opens to the public on Monday, June 15.
Driving up the dirt road that leads to the Brinton Memorial and the Brinton Museum, all that’s visible is the white ranch house peeking through the trees. It’s all rather subtle for a $15.8 million state of the art building. The new building isn’t even visible until one pulls into the parking lot. That’s because it’s buried in a hillside on a century-old 600-acre ranch at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains.
“By burying most of the building inside of the earth, the building would become part of the earth,” explains museum director and chief curator Ken Schuster.
But the story of how the place became a museum goes back almost a hundred years: When wealthy bachelor-rancher Bradford Brinton passed away in the 1930s, his sister took over the ranch. Then at her death in 1960, an endowment created the Bradford Brinton Memorial, but the money didn’t last forever.
“That money ran the institution well into—well, it could have run us into last year. But [in] 2008, you could really see the writing on the wall.” Schuster explains the ranch house, outbuildings, and Bradford Brinton’s original art collection were all dependent on the endowment—and the money was about to run out.
“And that didn’t sound very sensible,” says the new museum’s main benefactor and next door neighbor, Forrest Mars, Jr. (His grandfather created Mars candy bars and M&Ms.) Ken Schuster says the influx of money for the new museum—named the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Building—revived the Brinton. “It was a major game changer. There’s no way I could ever thank him enough, because he really saved the institution.”
But it was another piece of history that caught Mars’ attention. Starting in the 1910’s, a neighboring ranch received gifts from nearby Indian tribes: robes, war shirts, moccasins, and teepee furnishings from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes. “It is one of the great collections of Plains Indian art.”
Father Peter Powell is an Anglican priest, an adopted member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and the author of seven volumes on the tribe’s history and religion. In the 1970's, the Gallatin Collection, as it’s called, was entrusted to Father Powell, who runs the Foundation for the Preservation of American Indian Art and Culture in Chicago. So for the past four decades, the collection has resided in Chicago.
“And it’s been that many years, more than 40 years—almost half a century—of working and praying for the return of the collection. And now, under God, thanks to Mr. Mars' generosity, there is a building to house and to exhibit the collection,” says Powell.
Inside the museum, director Ken Schuster unlocks one of the temperature and humidity controlled galleries: “This is where the Gallatin Collection is coming. I mean, this is the biggest feather in our hat that we have to date, after the new building. But without the new building, this would have never happened. So these things really have worked very much hand in hand.” And Schuster says the building wouldn’t have happened without American Indian art collection.
Associate curator Katie Belton has been preparing portions of the collection for exhibition. “I think, yeah, probably the biggest honor of my life,” she says. “It’s huge. These are spiritual, and you can feel it. And there are some things as a woman that I’m not allowed to touch, such as Cheyenne eagle feathers—I’m not allowed to touch those with my bare hands. I take that really seriously. But in addition to the honor of touching the objects, it’s a huge honor to work with Father Powell.”
Ken Schuster says it’s an unusual approach for a museum: Father Powell is overseeing the curation of the exhibition, along with an American Indian advisory council. “The exhibition is going to basically deal with the sacral nature of American Indian art.”
“We want to stress that which museums before have not stressed,” says Father Powell. “The sacred nature of the art [to] the people who created it, who consider themselves to be holy people.”
But the exhibition isn’t the whole story. When associate curator Barbara Schuster showed me around the new Brinton Museum a few weeks ago, contractors were still putting the finishing touches on the three-story underground building.
“These are dividing walls for the galleries, in case we need more wall space for exhibits.” Schuster is interrupted by loud hammering. “This is not how we treat the art!” And she’s quite right. In fact, says Ken Schuster, the tens of thousands of square feet of storage are really what make the museum. “From a curator’s standpoint, this lower back level that the public will never see is the most exciting part of it.”
All that storage allows the museum to grow its collection and rotate its exhibitions. For Big Horn representative Rosie Berger, the building and the collection put the new Brinton Museum on the map.
“And truly we are now at the top of the game,” says Berger. “I think we have opportunities we don’t even know about yet. But the word’s going to get out, and we really will make Wyoming a destination for the art and cultural seekers of the nation—and the world, really.”
The new building will be dedicated on Sunday, June 14, with a blessing by representatives from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes. Then on Monday, the new Brinton Museum opens to the public. It’s a major moment for Forrest Mars, Jr. “You can’t imagine that one really believes it’s going to happen until it happens. And it has happened. So yes, I’m very pleased, to say the least.”
Now that the hillside has been transformed into a museum and the Gallatin Collection of American Indian art is back in its ancestral home, Mars can turn his attention to the little things—like Brinton-themed M&Ms for the museum gift shop. Maybe what makes the museum grand is, in fact, the attention to countless small details.
Having entered the building at ground level, Ken Schuster and I finally climb the last flight of stairs, and we emerge at the top of the hill, surrounded by a glorious panorama of the Big Horn Mountains. “It really is transformative in many ways,” he reflects. “I mean, the institution has transformed.” What was once a struggling museum is now a major center of Western and American Indian art.