Playing Cowboy. Our summer exhibition bears a short title, but one that speaks volumes. “Play,” anthropologists remind us, is serious business. It is through play that we try on identities, learn myths, and create collective memory. “Cowboy.” A loaded word, rich in association. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more persistent and pervasive story than that of the American West—a constellation of myths in which the cowboy looms large.
Inspired by Shelburne Museum’s collection, specifically a rare series of Native American portraits from the 1840s and a group of posters from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Playing Cowboy explores the mechanisms by which images of the frontier came to occupy such an important role in the American imagination in the decades that bracketed the turn of the twentieth century. The exhibition not only features the work of major painters and sculptors such as Charles Deas, Frederic Remington, and N.C. Wyeth, but also early moving pictures, popular illustrations, and the ephemera generated by impresario William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) as he concretized the image of the cowboy in the modern era.
Let me be direct: this is a complicated exhibition. Playing Cowboy reckons with some of the foundational narratives of our country, posing questions about race, ethnicity, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny along with some uncomfortable answers. Let me be equally clear: I would not want our Museum to shy away from an exhibition that provokes introspection and dialogue and offers our community a new lens through which to see American history.
Time flies. A trite expression, but never more apt than this August, when we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. It seems like just the other day that we opened the new facility—the very building that allows us to present elegant and informative projects like Playing Cowboy and our pendant exhibition, In The Garden. In those five years, more than 500,000 people have visited Shelburne Museum and left the experience knowing something new or seeing their world a little differently. For this I would like to thank the Museum staff and our many supporters—members, donors, and friends who make it all possible. I look forward to seeing you early and often this summer!