By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Use any search engine, and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West will show up as the top tourist attraction in Cody.
Five world-class museums, a research library, intertactive exhibits and a Smithsonian Institute affiliation make this 7-acre campus a must-see on anyone’s list when they travel to northwest Wyoming.
The museum itself is a testament to history — it was founded as the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association in 1917 by Buffalo Bill Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen.
And now, for the first time since its beginning, a woman is once again guiding the museum’s path.
“Wholeheartedly, I’m embracing it,” said Rebecca West, the newly minted executive director for the Buffalo Bill Center. “There have been a lot of very strong and accomplished women in the history of the organization starting with Mary Jester Allen. She’s the founder of the Center; I’m considered to be the first official professional woman director in the history of the Center.
“We’ve had wonderful board members and advisors who are women right now,” West continued. “They’ve been inspirational, and I rely on them still for advice as to how to make your way in the museum world, in the professional world, as a woman.”
West isn’t just the first woman to lead the institution since its inception — she is also the first executive director to spend her entire career at the Center, from her start as intern through jobs in research and registration to curation and administration.
“It’s not a career path that you’ll see a lot,” she said, “and I don’t know if I’d recommend it to a lot of people. I have worked for so many different departments — starting with the internship, that was really research; but I also worked for the conservation department. I moved on to curatorial work, worked for registration, and then started to get into management and other aspects.”
Because West has worked exclusively at the Center of the West for the last 25 years, she brings a level of experience to the job of executive director that can’t be found in a candidate who comes from somewhere else.
“Over 25 years, it’s not just the experience that you’ve gained here at the museum, but it’s also what you’ve absorbed, and what the Center has seen with world events, local events, regional events,” she explained. “And then there’s your own personal accomplishments, whether they’re family related, going back to school, all that. So it’s 25 years of experience — not just for work, but with life as well.”
West is also the first executive director who has lived for an extended period of time in Cody — having raised her family here.
“Chuck and I actually had our 25th wedding anniversary last year during the pandemic,” she said, smiling. “And we still managed to celebrate — I think we went fishing together down the Shoshone River.”
West’s daughter will graduate this year from the University of Montana in Missoula, with a degree in resource conservation, and her son is a freshman at Cody High School.
“So both kids have grown up here — outdoors kids through and through, and I think they’re pretty attached to Cody and the West, as much as I am, if not more,” West said.
West said she hopes that her story will give hope to others who have started their careers at the bottom – proof that they truly can work their way to the top.
“I think that this is a really momentous occasion, and not just for women,” West notes. “It’s important for young professionals who are getting into the arts, the humanities and the museum business especially, to understand that it is possible to work your way up from starting as an intern to becoming someday a museum director.”