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Past Perfect in Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s multifaceted history spans the birth of our nation to the modern era of transportation and can be seen in today’s living culture. Within one itinerary, groups can experience pioneer and Native American heritage, discover the wit and wisdom of Will Rogers and celebrate Route 66. At numerous cultural sites and museums, history unfolds for those interested in exploring the state’s fascinating past.


American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

Oklahoma City

Slated to be completed May 2021, the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum will be a significant institution with a national and regional scope. An extensive permanent exhibition, divided into different eras, will tell the collective story of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes.

Another significant exhibition will be on a long-term loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The exhibition will consist of 144 cultural materials collected from the tribes that are in Oklahoma today. Within those 144 items, every tribe in the state will be represented.

“It’s an amazing story because the materials were collected in Oklahoma, removed and went on a journey,” said Shoshana Wasserman, associate director and a citizen of Thlopthlocco Tribal Town and Muscogee Creek. “This is a homecoming as they make their way back to their tribes of origin. The entire museum tells the story of our homeland from a historic perspective and contemporary reality, so this truly is a national story.”

Groups can take advantage of the full-service restaurant and grab-and-go cafe. The large museum store will sell one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks. Many Oklahoma artists go elsewhere to make a living and sell their works, but the museum plans to cultivate an artistic marketplace on-site. Wasserman suggested that if groups want to extend their stays, all of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes are within 30 minutes to three hours by motorcoach, and many have cultural centers.

American Banjo Museum

Oklahoma City

Touting the world’s largest banjo collection on public display, the American Banjo Museum recounts the history of the American banjo. On the first floor, displays start with the minstrel banjo, which was introduced in the 1800s, before moving on to classic banjos, jazz, bluegrass, folk and five-stringed instruments.

The banjo was initially used with the African slave culture until broader public interest grew in the mid-1800s and on into today. Five large exhibits with multiple instruments represent each era. The museum’s core collection on the second floor showcases “Banjos of the Jazz Age,” plus a rotating exhibit and the Hall of Fame that celebrates an induction each September.

“After the private Hall of Fame induction, the ticketed Banjo Festival is perfect for groups,” said Janet Raines, group sales and marketing manager. “That Saturday afternoon, musicians play in the museum, including many past Hall of Fame inductees.”

Route 66 Interpretive Center


Between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, a 1937 National Guard armory houses the Route 66 Interpretive Center. The walls of this WPA building were constructed of 20-inch-thick, hand-chiseled sandstone bricks hauled by mule from a local quarry.

One-of-a-kind memorabilia from the 1930s to the present day includes historic brochures and travel guides, vintage billboards and virtual “hotel rooms” with themes such as “Vanished Icons” and “Neon Nights.” At different stations, visitors “ride” in a 1930 Model-A Ford, a 1948 Willys Jeep and a 1965 red Mustang while watching short films on all aspects of the Mother Road.

“Before touring the building, our introductory film follows Dick Besser’s 1959 journey on Route 66 and revisits it 40 years later in his red Corvette,” said museum director Susan Pordos. “Visitors will definitely want to browse our gift shop that sells a nice variety of Route 66 and Oklahoma souvenirs, from metal signs to jewelry and hats.”

Gilcrease Museum


The Gilcrease Museum can easily fill an afternoon with its world-class collection of Western American art, which includes Remington bronzes and one of the largest collections of Thomas Moran and Charles M. Russell’s artwork. The museum’s collection contains paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from Colonial times to the present.

Self-made oilman Thomas Gilcrease began amassing his fortune and purchasing art before founding the museum in 1949. The museum’s historic, themed gardens reflect horticultural styles and techniques from the American West. Guided tours highlight their relationship to the museum’s collection and pre-Columbian-, pioneer-, Colonial- and Victorian-themed gardens. The not-to-be-missed museum store features Native American and contemporary art, plus iconic local artists.

The third Sunday of every month, free Funday Sunday offers special exhibition-themed programming. Gilcrease After Hours is a free evening of culture and cocktails that takes place the last Friday of each month.

Chickasaw Cultural Center     


On 184 pristine acres of rolling hills and woodlands, the Chickasaw Cultural Center tells the story of the tribe’s culture, both past and present. The Chikasha Poya exhibit center showcases a timeline of Chickasaw history, from the mound-building society of the southeastern United States to the current-day Chickasaw Nation. Following a short film, “Chickasaw Renaissance,” the screen rises, and the audience is beckoned into a Spirit Forest that represents the most ancient sense of Chickasaw culture.

Via a winding path or the four-story Sky Bridge, groups can visit the Chikasha Inchokka Traditional Village. The village replicates traditional houses, structures and grounds of the Chickasaw Homeland from 1700 to 1750, before European contact. It features a stomp dance demonstration area, a stickball field and the Three Sisters garden. In good weather, the village hosts cultural instructors that demonstrate traditional crafts such as beadwork, basketry and pottery, tanning hides, bow-making and flute-making.

Pioneer Woman Museum and Statue

Ponca City

The Pioneer Woman Museum honors the legacy of pioneering women of all races, creeds and nationalities, both local and national. The bronze 17-foot-tall “Pioneer Woman” statue commemorates the many women who braved the dangers and hardships of the homesteading life. Also featured in the museum are women who have made outstanding pioneering contributions in space, photography and medicine.

The museum tells the story of Oklahoma women from early settlers to those who had successful careers in the 1950s. Permanent galleries highlight 14 Oklahomans with vignettes of their lives. Household furniture, clothing and memorabilia of family life are all on display.

“The nation has only 61 museums dedicated to women’s history, and we’re one of them,” said Keith Fagan, historical interpreter. “Next year, we’ll have a large exhibit on women’s suffrage for the 100th-year anniversary commemorating women’s right to vote.”

Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch


In April, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum opened the newly renovated Will Rogers Theatre. Rogers became the top male motion-picture box-office star from 1933 through 1935. In the span of his career, he made 51 silent movies and 21 talkies. Groups can watch one of six documentaries in the new theater and one of Rogers’ full-length movies shown daily in the museum’s minitheater.

“The last Friday evening of every month, we show a free movie and serve free popcorn and a beverage,” said Tad Jones, executive director. “An antique organ, which was donated and installed in the theater, is played whenever silent movies are featured.”

Near Claremore, a scenic drive leads to Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch, situated on 200 acres. The 1875 two-story house commemorates Rogers’ younger years. Outside, goats and burros graze beside the barn. Groups can picnic overlooking Oologah Lake and watch longhorn cattle as they roam the acreage.

Coleman Theatre


Rivaling New York theaters of its day, the Coleman Theatre stage has seen many celebrities. It’s the exact spot where Will Rogers and Sally Rand, the fan dancer, performed. Silent-movie star Tom Mix rode his famous horse, Tony, across it, too.

Today, the building has been restored to its former glory as a vaudeville theater and movie palace on Route 66. Originally, the theater housed an audience of 1,600. Today, it seats 1,100 with reproduction seats that are wider and softer than the originals. A full schedule of national touring groups, concerts and local performers fills the calendar.

The elegant Louis XV interior dazzled 1930s audiences. Guided tours tell the history of Coleman, who partnered with Bing Crosby. Groups can enjoy boxed lunches onstage and hear a performance on the restored Mighty Wurlitzer organ that was built specifically for this theater. Afterward, they can shop the theater’s exclusive boutiques.

“For a more formal affair, groups can enjoy a catered dinner in the ballroom and watch a classic movie in keeping with the era,” said Danny Dillon, assistant manager. “The most striking aspect about our theater is how the community has worked together to restore the original ambiance of the time period, and visitors say it’s like stepping into the past.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.