UPDATE: The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum the 2023 National Medal for Museum and Library Service on May 23.
“We are positively giddy over here,” Museum Director Sylvia Bruner told WyoFile. —Ed.
BUFFALO—The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum is tucked into Johnson County’s Courthouse grounds on a busy downtown corner. The building’s native limestone and sandstone structure is typical of its past life as a Carnegie Library, but a bronze statue of rancher and local hero Nate Champion — with guns-a-blazing — invites visitors up the front steps and into the museum packed with Wyoming history. Visitors often tell staff and volunteers they’re surprised by the quality of what the museum has to offer, like its sprawling dioramas, interactive exhibits and tens of thousands of artifacts.
Many credit Sylvia Bruner, who has directed the museum for the last six years, with its engaging approach and recent recognition as a finalist for the National Medal for Museum and Library Services.
“You can’t find a better museum director,” said Susan Theune, a longtime volunteer at the museum.
“If it doesn’t happen, we’re gonna sit and cry for a while,” Bruner said of the award, which will be announced in late May. “And if it does, then that’s going to be huge news.”
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) nominated the museum for the prestigious award, which is no easy feat for any museum, let alone a small facility in rural Wyoming. The fact that it is a finalist is a testament to Bruner’s tireless work to “pull the museum out of a very difficult time,” said Sharon Miller, a museum board member.
As Bruner tells it, shortly before she became director in 2016, “everything went to hell in a handbasket.” Budget mishaps and unauthorized firings — including Bruner herself — left the museum in disarray. The governing board reassured Bruner she had not been fired. In fact, they offered her a promotion. The board was hoping she would right the ship as the new director. With some trepidation, Bruner accepted the job.
“It was a really crazy kind of experience,” Bruner said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I had not been in any kind of administrative management-type of position.”
But Bruner rose to the occasion, according to the board, museum staff and volunteers, community members and others in the museum world.
Off like a cannon shot
Bruner mostly grew up north of Buffalo, where her family lived on Piney Creek. She was homeschooled but began to come out of her shell when she got her first job at 15, she said.
“Fort Phil Kearney was just down the road, you could almost see it from my mom and dad’s house and they were hiring some summer help,” she said. She initially worked in the bookstore but soon got involved with the living history group that performed reenactments at the historic site.
“One of the guys who created that group, he and his wife, Bill and Carla Raymond, were really, really sweet people,” Bruner said. “And I remember asking him, ‘I want to shoot the cannon. What do I have to do?’”
The Raymonds taught Bruner how to fire off a replica Civil-war era cannon. Her interest in history “just took off from there,” she said.
Instead of going to college right after high school in 2003, Bruner bought a pickup truck and split her time working at both Fort Phil Kearney and the Gatchell Museum. She has stayed at Gatchell ever since, working her way up while also taking night classes at Sheridan College to earn an associate degree in history. This coming October, Bruner said she plans to buy herself a cake to celebrate her 20 years at the museum.
Troubles and reaccreditation
The museum opened in 1957 after Jim Gatchell’s death. The pharmacist opened the first drug store in Johnson County in the spring of 1900. It became a popular stop for cowboys, lawmen, settlers, cattle barons, famous Army scouts and Native Americans. Through the years, many of Gatchell’s customers befriended him and brought him gifts, from firearms to bows and arrows, which he displayed inside his drug store. When he died, his family donated his extensive collection to Johnson County under the agreement that a museum would be built.
The museum’s footprint has expanded over the years and it’s now housed in three interconnected buildings. Its collections have also grown and its galleries span subjects from geology and fossils to local Native American history and the Johnson County cattle war. Bruner had been working in the museum’s collections in 2016 when the facility hit a rough patch.
At the time, museum board members said a “bookkeeping mistake” led to the museum spending $35,000 in restricted funds that had been earmarked for specific projects, according to the Buffalo Bulletin. Bruner was under the impression she was being laid off for budgetary reasons. Instead, she found herself elevated to the museum’s helm.
She was still learning the ropes of the new job when peer reviewers from the American Alliance of Museums visited as part of reaccreditation. Accredited museums must go through an in-depth process every 10 years to keep their status. The Gatchell Museum is one of just six Wyoming museums with AAM accreditation, but Bruner assumed its chance to retain the status was revoked.
“Next thing I know I’m getting a call from the American Alliance of Museums and they’re saying, ‘Your on-site reviews are going to be here next week,” Bruner said. Though a bit unexpected, she said, the experience was massively helpful.
“They give you the tools if you fail. And we did at first,” Bruner said. AAM tabled the museum’s reaccreditation so Bruner and her staff could address problem areas. Those ranged from simply adding covers to thermostats to keep patrons from changing temperatures and potentially damaging the artifacts to the more complicated creation of a strategic plan for the future, as well as a formal document detailing the museum’s legal relationship with the county. In the process, Bruner said she got some good advice.
“Never waste a good disaster,” Bruner said. In 2018, the museum was reaccredited.
“It’s the gold stamp of approval from a national organization that your museum is being well-run,” said Sharon Miller, a current board member. Miller started volunteering at the museum in 2016 when the museum was struggling, and said Bruner’s leadership was pivotal.
“A lot of responsibility was put on her shoulders and she has just so gracefully led the museum to a new, better place,” Miller said. “She was just the absolutely right person for the job at the time.”
“The museum is thriving and is much loved in Buffalo and Johnson County,” Miller said.
The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries that demonstrate significant impact in their communities.
“Community service is the heart of why museums are supposed to exist,” Bruner said. “We hold and display and hopefully interpret and care for historic artifacts … but we exist for everybody to come in and learn about what has happened.”
Before Bruner led the museum, it was mostly seen as a repository, said Theune, a volunteer. That’s been an important change under Bruner’s leadership, Theune said, as the museum has expanded its outreach programs.
When Bruner reached the top position, she said, she wanted to make a point to advocate for her two employees and their ideas. Those ideas have spawned into highly successful programming, including daytime walking tours of Buffalo, cemetery tours by night, summer youth art classes, genealogy courses and public lectures. Some programming, like the Art Museum Mondays for kids, has been so successful that it is now free to participants because volunteer donations and grants pay for it. The museum’s latest development is a new retrospective of renowned and local artist D. Michael Thomas’ work. The exhibit opened May 12.
One particular outreach program gave Bruner one of her proudest professional moments. In 2018, the museum sponsored a presentation by Sam Mihara, who was incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming during World War II. Like millions of other Japanese-American citizens, Mihara was forced from his home on the west coast and into a camp for several years. After Bruner saw Mihara’s presentation in Laramie, she invited him to Buffalo on behalf of the museum.
Bruner knew it was an important piece of history to bring home but was nervous about its reception. She knew Mihara had been heckled, harassed and threatened on previous stops.
“But our community welcomed him,” Bruner said. Seven-hundred people filled the Buffalo High School auditorium for the presentation — an impressive turnout for a town of approximately 4,400 people. “High school kids were lined up to meet him and shake his hand. We were so proud of our community.”
Theune, the museum volunteer, credits the warm welcome to Bruner.
“That [happened] because of [Bruner’s] leadership in the community and what the community thinks of this museum,” Theune said.
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