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Saddle Up... and Say Cheese!

Vintage selfies at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
Written by June Naylor.

mcm During Fort Worth's rodeo season in January and February, I’m the most popular person in my family and circle of friends. That’s because my home is just two blocks from Will Rogers Memorial Center, home to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Folks come from all over Texas and beyond to attend the world’s original indoor rodeo, and weekends bring visitors in droves to the fairgrounds and museums surrounding the rodeo arena—more than a million people each year. For my nearest and dearest, my driveway becomes a coveted free parking spot within easy walking distance of all that fun.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is at 1720 Gendy St. in Fort Worth. Call 817/336-4475.

It’s also the time I get to see my 12-year-old niece, Madison, shirk her softball-pitcher persona and dress up like a cowgirl in jeans and boots. So when I realized this year that Madison and her mom, Kelli, hadn’t visited one of the rodeo district’s greatest assets, the National CowgirlMuseum and Hall of Fame, I set out to give them an even greater appreciation of American Western history.

The Cowgirl, as it’s called for short, honors exceptional women who have conquered the West and provides a fascinating lens through which to examine female fortitude. I first enjoyed its remarkable display of exhibits back in the 1980s, at its original home in the Panhandle town of Hereford. A far grander version is the expanded one we enjoy today in Fort Worth, which opened in 2002.

The exterior alone gives reason to pause, certainly for anyone who finds allure in the romance of the Old West. Designed by architect David M. Schwarz—whose other Fort Worth works include Bass Performance Halland Sundance Square Plaza—the sandstone-and-brick edifice blends amiably with the Art Moderne design of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center. Detail work catches the eye, too, with wild rose finials and six intricate bas-relief panels carved by Janice Hart, including one called “Always Saddle Your Own Horse,” inwhich a mother teaches her daughter the value of self-reliance; and “Round-Up,” depicting courageous women working cattle. A magnificent mural by artist Richard Haas on the east side of the building depicts five cowgirls ongalloping horses, leaping from the wall.

And at the museum’s entrance, there’s “High Desert Princess,” a life-size bronze by horse trainer-turned-sculptor Mehl Lawson, who offers a contemporary cowgirl standing with her quarter horse.

Inside, a greater conversation about the cowgirl ideal and spirit unfolds.

My favorite recent addition is a gallery called Hitting the Mark, which tells the story of performers like stuntman Buffalo Bill Cody and diminutive sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who played to enormous audiences at Wild West shows worldwide. Digitally enhanced photography and artful presentations of artifacts showcase the gritty but graceful Annie Oakley; her stories come alive through vivid hologramsin which she tells tales of her extraordinary life—words borrowed from her letters and memoir.

In this gallery, Madison and her friend Ellie find a serious source of fun: There’s a photo booth with a greenscreen backdrop that transports you to the Wild West period via clever use of technology. Using a touchscreen, the girls choose a vintage photo in which to insert themselves, then move around until they’re realistically placed in the vintage image and—click!—their photo is shot. In a few seconds, a print pops out beneath the touchscreen or can be emailed or texted. Within a few minutes, Madison and Ellie have images of themselves in one of Buffalo Bill’s stagecoaches and attempting to grab the horns of a bucking bull.

Of course, the two girls ham it up the whole time, making peace signs with their fingers and broadcasting big grins few people wore in 1883. No wonder it’s the museum’s most popular interactive exhibit.

“Anytime I go into the gallery, there’s a group of people by the photobooth, taking all the shots they can,” says Diana Vela, associate executive director of the Cowgirl. “If you play with it long enough you can get really good at placement. For special events, we bring in hats, chaps, and other props for people to wear in the photos.”

In the Grand Rotunda, we cast our eyes upward to the high-tech mobile suspended far above us. We’re studying the hundreds of Cowgirl Hall of Fame honorees—women who worked as trick riders or barrel racers, singers or writers or artists, ranchers or pioneers— captured in photos and video projected on hundreds of moving digital tiles. On the opposite sides of the tiles we see the Hall of Fame motto, “The women who shape the west   change the world.”

After climbing the stairway to the Cowgirl’s second floor, we explore a gallery illustrating women’s work outdoors and indoors. Just around the corner, the girls find an exhibit called Be a Star! Here’s another green screen where the girls insert themselves in posters for old movie Westerns; they’ll pick up the photos downstairs in the gift shop. For certainly no visit to the museum is complete without a spin in the gift shop, which is expertly curated withrelevant gifts from around the country.

Madison and Ellie try on various hats and thumb through a few bookswhile Kelli and I admire handbags ofall sizes, each with beautiful Western style tooling. My favorite items for purchase are wooden cutting boards bearing the slogan “Always saddle your own horse.”

Wise advice.

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