KEARNEY – Bison no longer roam the Nebraska prairies, but starting Wednesday, the public can learn about them and their role in Great Plains history at the Trails & Rails Museum.
“Bison,” a new exhibit, combines history, artifacts and hands-on activities. It can be seen Feb. 1-May 14.
It tells the tragic history of the buffalo, its rescue from near extinction and the story of people across the country who are working to preserve bison as a vibrant part of the nation’s future.
“The Trails & Rails Museum is fortunate to have the bison exhibit, especially how it relates to Native peoples and the geography of the Great Plains before, during and after non-native settlement,” Broc Anderson, the Trails & Rails Museum’s community engagement director, said.
“We chose this exhibit because it honors the Native peoples and ecology of the Great Plains prior to Kearney’s existence in 1873,” he said.
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Visitors can see a buffalo hide and learn about buffalo and the critical role of dung beetles on the prairie.
Buffalo skulls and uses for buffalo bones, hair, hides and horns are explained, too, along with a Buffalo Bills helmet that illustrates this nation’s long fascination with buffalo.
This traveling exhibit originally toured as “The Bison: American Icon,” and was based on a permanent exhibit at the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.
That Great Falls exhibit features more than 1,000 Northern Plains Indian artifacts such as clothing, regalia, tools and weapons, and artwork highlighting Northern Plains Indian culture.
It addresses the crucial historical and cultural role of the bison for people in the Northern Plains between 1800 and 2008 and examines the ways in which this animal has emerged as an American cultural icon.
The traveling exhibit in Kearney dates back to 2009, when the Mid-America Arts Alliance contracted with Flint Hills Design, in collaboration with the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kansas, to design and build a traveling bison exhibit that could be broken down and shipped in compact units.
Once completed, it went on tour, financed in part by the NEH. When that tour ended in 2016, the National Buffalo Foundation purchased the traveling exhibit.
The Kauffman Museum refurbished and updated it, adding more information on the bison’s grass life on the Great Plains. The Kauffman Museum now makes it available to other museums on behalf of the NBF.
“Bison” is one of several exhibits planned by Trails & Rails in commemoration of Kearney’s sesquicentennial this year. The Buffalo County Historical Society, its parent organization, is the main organizer of sesquicentennial events.
Starting Wednesday, in conjunction with the opening of “Bison,” a timeline of historic photos can be seen along the museum’s south display wall.
Displays will include the Kearney Volunteer Fire Department, with artifacts such as the KVFD’s ballot box, gas masks and the 1901 Fire Races Nebraska Championship belt.
Other displays will feature Kearney during World War II and the city’s educational institutions.
In June, “Voices and Votes,” a Smithsonian traveling exhibition making its way across Nebraska, will stop at the Trails & Rails Museum.
A downtown sesquicentennial birthday party is set for June 24, and on July 23, a pioneer baseball game will be played, partnered with the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island.
The Kearney Cemetery is partnering with the museum for an event called Beyond the Grave Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The official opening of the Kearney 150th Birthday time capsule is expected to take place Dec. 3.
“We have a lot going on at the museum, and we hope people in our community take advantage of it,” Anderson said.