Like Scottsdale’s other relatively new museum, SMOCA, the Western Spirit: Scottsdale Museum of the West structure is a handsome addition to the city, with architecture tastefully blending in with the desert like surrounds. Inside, it feels as spacious as the Southwest sky.
“…Spirit..” is a fitting word to include in its name, as an early indicator that though artifact-filled, like most museums, its collections accumulate more like a poem than a narrative. This is just as much or more about the West of the imagination than in the real world.
Consider one of the first displays as you walk in—a wall of famous Westerners. While some obvious yin-yang balancing was going on in the selections – e.g. famous Republicans mixed in with the same number famous Democrats – it struck this writer more like a high challenge Sudoku puzzle to figure out how these few were wall-worthy from the millions of possibilities.
Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West Intro Movie
On the other side of this wall is a theater that cycles an overview movie evoking a Native American sense of the land and spirits intermingled. The theater walls are decorated with reminders of the movies that have already defined the West in our mind’s eye—from Clint Eastwood to John Wayne to Dances with Wolves. Unlike the tell-it-like-it-was movies that the National Parks Service creates for sites like Ellis Island’s museum, this film is lite and airy, for example referring obliquely to times of culture clash rather than the carnage of Cowboy-Indian wars.
Leather, silver and more stellar craftsmanship
Deeper in the museum you’ll find floor to ceiling collections of saddles, spurs, holsters and other cowboy paraphernalia made with detailed craftsmanship and keen eyes to aesthetics. Who knew cowboys so loved to accessorize? For this New York born and bred writer, these leather and metal craftsmanship exhibits alone are worth the price of admission.
Cowboy and Indian Art
Lovers of cowboy art will also feel that they have arrived in their Mecca. John Coleman bronzes of both cowboys and Indians, local sceneries from painter Marjorie Thomas, and contemporary artists’ takes on classic Western themes are the main attractions. Western movies and related memorabilia do find a home here too, above and beyond the posters in the museum theater.
Optical Illusion Art
The museum is also extremely proud, if our Boston-accented docent is an indicator, of optical illusion artworks that play with your perspective to give them a feel of moving or an ability to pose as if on horse. It’ a touch of carnival that might evoke for some, in this Western context, the snake oil salesman pulling his wares out from his wagon in a Western you saw back in the day, or for others, perhaps the mirage on the desert’s horizon.
Tip: Take the Quick Tour
More to this theater reviewer’s interest was our energetic docent’s report that Shakespearean actors could earn as much as $6,000 per week in San Francisco around the time of the Gold Rush.
These tours of the museum are included in the museum admission, giving you a quick overview of the collections such that you can then cherry pick the exhibits that interest you most. The exhibit roster will likely change as the museum boasts having no permanent collections that it owns, only loaners, with alleged benefits of keeping insurance and other costs in check. For some of us, this is mainly a reminder that Proposition 13 was born in our most Western state, California.
For most, an hour and a half will be more than adequate to allocate for the entire museum visit.
Closed Mondays and Holidays (check Museum of the West website)
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursday: 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m., November-April; or 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., May-October
Sunday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
3830 North Marshall Way
$13 with discounts for seniors, active military, students and children