How A Candy Magnate Helped Bring A Holy Collection Home
At the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming, a century-old ranch plays host to a small art museum. It's quite an idyllic setting — but just a few years ago, the Brinton Museum's finances didn't paint such a pretty picture.
An endowment set up in 1960 preserved the historic ranch near Sheridan, Wyo., as well as the bachelor-rancher Bradford Brinton's art collection. By 2008, though, it seemed that before long the museum would have to close, says the place's director, Ken Schuster.
"You could really see the writing on the wall," Schuster says.
That didn't make much sense to Forrest Mars Jr., however. The grandson of the creator of Mars candy bars and M&Ms lived next door to the ranch. And while he'd never thought about getting involved in the museum, his mind changed when he heard about something else: a collection of American Indian artifacts in Chicago, which Schuster and his wife, Barbara, had told Mars about.
"They kind of got me enthused about the collection and what we could do with it — and could we save it?" says Mars.
A Trip Next Door, Via Chicago
The story behind that artifact collection began more than a century ago. In 1911, the neighboring Gallatin ranch received gifts from the nearby Crow tribe.
"Crow people were gift givers," says Mardell Plainfeather, a Crow historian and artist based in Billings, Mont. "They appreciated the act of giving something to someone. And that item could be very special to them, but so was the person on the other hand who was receiving it."
The gifts included robes, war shirts, moccasins and teepee furnishings given to the Gallatin family by the Crow, who also gave them art from the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota, Kiowa, Nez Perce and Blackfeet tribes — more than 90 pieces in all.
In turn, the Gallatins' daughter passed the collection on to Peter Powell.
"It is one of the great collections of Plains Indian art," says Powell, an Anglican priest and an adopted member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and its chiefs' society. He also runs the Foundation for the Preservation of American Indian Art and Culture in Chicago, where the Gallatin Collection has been held for safekeeping since the 1970s.
"And it's been that many years, more than 40 years — almost half a century — of working and praying for the return of the collection," he says.
New Life From Mars
When Mars found out about the collection from Schuster, he immediately had some questions: "Why are they in Chicago? Can we get them back?"
Schuster wasn't so sure if they could — at least, not with the Brinton Museum about to go broke and without state-of-the-art storage and display facilities. So, Mars decided to invest $16 million in a new building.
"That's why we built it," Mars says. "It was to bring them home."
But bringing those artifacts home was only the first step. Plainfeather, the historian, says that the objects on display are sacred, having been handed down from generation to generation — so it's crucial to consider the way they're handled and displayed.
"These are spiritual, and you can feel it," says Katie Belton, the Brinton Museum's associate curator. "And there are some things as a woman I'm not allowed to touch, such as Cheyenne eagle feathers; I'm not allowed to touch those with my bare hands, and I take that really seriously.
"But in addition to the honor of touching the objects, it's a huge honor to work with Father Powell."
Powell is overseeing the curation of the exhibition, along with an American Indian advisory council. It's an unusual approach for a museum.
"We want to stress that which museums before have not stressed: The sacred nature of the art of the people who created it, who consider themselves to be holy people," Powell says.
The new Brinton Museum was dedicated with a blessing by elders from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota tribes. Ken Schuster, the museum's director says it was Forrest Mars Jr. who gave the struggling museum a fresh start.
"It was a major game changer, because he really saved the institution."
Copyright 2021 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.