CODY — The Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Cody Firearms Museum finally opened its doors to the public after a complete renovation of its collection and displays.
Curator and project director Ashley Hlebinsky, project manager John Gallagher and assistant curator Danny Michael, along with the help of about 100 employees and contract workers, have transformed Hlebinsky’s vision into a spectacular display of the complete history of firearms. The misconception that the collection is mostly western or American weaponry is quickly dispelled upon entering.
“We’re part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, but we’re not a western museum. We talk about the entirety of firearms history,” Hlebinsky said.
The grand opening was Saturday, July 6, from 3-7 p.m. The celebration started with former Special Forces Sergeant Dana Bowman parachuting onto the grounds from a World War II C-47 airplane, proceeding to a ribbon cutting ceremony.
The destination firearms museum closed last August to begin work and has since opened about one-tenth of the collection to the public during a soft opening during the Memorial Day weekend. Open Saturday are an additional seven galleries and the entire lower level. The vastly improved layout took into consideration that about half of the museum’s visitors came to the Center, but not specifically for the firearms collection.
Great care was taken to involve those who have little or no knowledge about firearms, including displays showing involvement in the industry by companies most know, like Abercrombie & Fitch, Ford and the maker of the Louisville Slugger. There are also displays designed for the beginner – everything from basic designs of firearms to shooting safety. The museum will also appeal to gun enthusiasts and, considering the volume of the collections and information provided, those choosing the museum as their ultimate destination might want to plan multiple days for exploration.
There are seemingly endless digital and mechanical interactive displays and four simulators in the museum, including handguns, rifles and shotguns and a M2 machine gun. Most of the work done was designing new displays and improving the layout to make the collection more accessible.
“We acquired several new pieces through donations, but for this we really focused on working with what we have,” Hlebinsky said.
What they have is a lot. The museum is one of the largest collections of firearms in the U.S. and is often credited as the most comprehensive public collection of firearms in the country. Hlebinsky said the collection is about the same size as the Smithsonian firearms collection, yet only about 200 firearms are on display at the Smithsonian Institute. Cody has more than 30,000 pieces in its collection and 10,673 artifacts will be on display for the grand opening.
“It’s almost an encyclopedic collection,” she said.
The reworking of the museum cost more than $12 million, financed through donations and federal grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences and the National Endowment for Humanities. While keeping the same footprint of 40,000 square-feet, Hlebinsky’s design offers plenty of space to comfortably explore.
“Technology has changed, especially in terms of case work,” she said. “While we didn’t expand the footprint, we made better use of the space we have. When you walk in it will definitely feel larger.”
Hlebinsky was introduced to Cody while facilitating a loan collection from the Smithsonian. She has been with the Cody Firearms Museum for eight years, including time spent between the museum and working on her masters degree. Small in stature but with a huge personality, she has immersed herself in everything firearms – from her degree in American history with an emphasis in the perception of firearms in culture to a collection of custom made boots with firearms motifs.
Her love for research led to space for professional studies and collaboration as well. The museum is also academically accredited.