Oklahoma is chock full of incredible museums that tell the sometimes-painful stories of the state’s past, from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 to the Trail of Tears. But not all the stories are sad ones.
Groups can get their kicks on Route 66, the Mother Road; learn about Will Rogers, one of the country’s first national influencers before the advent of computers and cell phones; or experience the stories of the Native Americans, white settlers and freed slaves who fueled the growth of the West after the Civil War.
Here are five compelling museums to include on your group’s next trip to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma’s newest museum puts the spotlight on one of the most tragic events in Tulsa history: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The museum, which held its grand opening in July, was built to commemorate the victims and survivors of the massacre on the 100th anniversary of the event. Unlike other museums, Greenwood Rising won’t be full of artifacts. Instead, it uses the latest interactive technologies — projection mapping, holographic effect and environmental media — to create a narrative experience, telling the story of the massacre from many different perspectives.
Hundreds of people lost their lives, homes and livelihoods in what was then called Black Wall Street or the Greenwood District of Tulsa. Because of segregation, African Americans in the Greenwood District started successful businesses that catered to their own community, from restaurants and doctor’s offices to grocery stores. An incident that is still in question today sparked the confrontation between white Tulsans and Greenwood’s residents that ended with at least 300 Black people dead, and thousands of them left homeless and without livelihoods as their homes and businesses were burned to the ground. The museum, which was developed by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, wanted to find ways to educate citizens about the events that took place and help facilitate racial reconciliation in Tulsa.
“This is not a one-and-done, not a moment where the community sings ‘Kumbaya,’” said Phil Armstrong, project director for the Centennial Commission. This is the beginning of an effort to tell Greenwood’s story beyond Oklahoma’s borders. “When [visitors] come here, they will fully experience this story and history and be inspired to go back to their communities. Use this model. Look what happens when a community comes together to break down biases and prejudice.”
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
Groups that visit the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City will be amazed at the size of the place and wowed by the exhibits that take up every square inch of the museum’s 220,000 square feet. Visitors can learn about the tribal nations that made America their home before European settlers arrived or step into the stories of the pioneers and cowboys who made their way west and learn about the challenges they faced.
The museum has a huge collection of Western art and artifacts. Outside, groups can see how different Native American tribes lived, from a replica of ancient Puebloan dwellings to grass huts, tepees and log cabins. There also is a replica of a Mexican rodeo, an oil derrick, sod houses where freed slaves lived after the Civil War, a trading post and a full-size covered wagon.
“I love what we get to do here,” said Natalie Shirley, president and CEO of the museum. “It is big and is a powerful story”
Technology allows visitors to hear individual stories as well. One of the museum’s current online offerings allows people to listen to letters that were written by a young woman who came west to her mother in Oregon.
“We’re trying to connect in so many different ways,” Shirley said. “Reading these letters that otherwise would have been catalogued in our research center, we are bringing them to the front so lots of people can enjoy them and learn and feel connected.”
Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch
An actor, performer, humorist and newspaper columnist, Will Rogers was a household name in the 1920s and 1930s. When he died in a plane crash in 1935, the Oklahoma Legislature built a memorial in his honor. The Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch talks about his life and showcases memorabilia from his years in the public eye, sculptures and paintings.
Born in Cherokee territory in 1879, Rogers was a trick roper who performed on the vaudeville circuit. He starred in Ziegfeld’s Follies on Broadway and did radio. He performed in more than 70 films and wrote a daily newspaper column commenting on the news of the day with his own brand of humor, like an early version of Jay Leno or Johnny Carson.
Groups can watch documentaries about him in the museum’s theater, learn about his life and the tragic crash that ended his life and what he meant to the country, said Tad Jones, executive director of the museum.
“People come from all over the world to visit here,” said Jones. “He was well known. He was one of those who transcended political parties, and his famous line was ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ He liked everybody, and they liked him.”
His birthplace is 12 miles up the road. Called Dog Iron Ranch or the White House on the Verdigris River, the home was built in 1870 and was where Will and his seven older siblings grew up.
The museum’s interpreter offers groups a special presentation and a one-to-two-hour tour of both locations. Groups can also plan a lunch at the Birthplace Ranch.
Cherokee National History Museum
Recently restored and opened in 2019, the Cherokee National History Museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum located in the former Cherokee National Capitol building, which housed the tribe’s executive, legislative and judicial offices until 1906. Most recently, it housed the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court until fall 2018. The 7,000-square-foot museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the Cherokee Nation.
Visitors can learn how to make traditional Cherokee arts and crafts, study the Cherokee syllabary and learn about the modern era of the Cherokee Nation.
Many of the permanent and temporary exhibits include interactive elements that guests can access through touch screens and that help bring the content to life beyond what is in the exhibit.
The museum will soon be connected to the nearby Cherokee National Prison Museum, the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, the Cherokee Arts Center, the Kawi Café and the Spider Gallery through a Cherokee art park and cultural pathway project that should be completed by late summer. It will include new walkways, a public gathering space, art displays, a chalk wall, new landscaping, outdoor lighting and places to sit. The Cherokee Heritage Center, an outdoor living history museum with a reconstruction of a Cherokee village, is currently undergoing renovation and is closed to the public. Check for updates before your group visits.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum
Route 66, the Mother Road, was the first major road to connect East to West, running from Chicago through Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum is one of the largest repositories of Route 66 history along the road and is a must-see for groups that feel nostalgic about simpler times before the interstate highway system was built.
Using artifacts and photography, the museum tells the story of the historic road from its inception in the 1920s to the end of the road’s heyday in the 1970s. Before the interstate highway system was built, Route 66, a two-lane road, was the only way for commerce and travelers to get across the country quickly. It connected hundreds of small towns that thrived because of their location on the road.
Visitors from around the world travel to Oklahoma to see the museum and its contents, from the red ’57 Chevy in the front window to the restored 1950s roadside diner on the property. The galleries use technology and interactive elements to tell the story of each decade along the road using music and artifacts from long-gone Route 66 businesses. For the more tech-savvy visitors, QR codes allow visitors to take audio tours as they progress through the exhibits.
Pixar, the animation company known for its collaboration with Disney on the movie “Cars,” visited the museum when it was looking for a back story and model for Radiator Springs.
When group travelers call ahead, the museum ensures they have plenty of volunteers ready to make them feel welcome. They get a brief overview and then time to wander the exhibits and gift shop on their own.