When we are visiting Montana, a jaunt to Great Falls is always a popular day trip. There are several great stops there that are both educational and enjoyable!
On one of our recent visits, we spent a few hours at the CM Russell Museum complex, and it was a hit!
If you have even passed through Montana, you SHOULD know who Charlie Russell is. Born in Missouri, Charlie Russell moved to Montana when he was 16 to be a cowpuncher. After things didn’t quite work out like he had hoped, Charlie tried a couple of other jobs before finally becoming a night herder. Night herding was the perfect job for Charlie as he could observe cowboys and their mounts, as well as the cattle, yet have his days to watch, make notes, and work on his art.
Charlie’s talent quickly matured, and he quit herding to became a fulltime artist. Over the years, Charlie completed thousands of pieces of art. Many of those can be found in the CM Russell Museum, which began in 1965 with a modest Russell collection donated by a close personal friend of the Russell family. The museum has expanded 3 times over the years to house the ever expanding CM Russell artwork collection, and the museum complex now covers and entire city block and includes the 70,000 sq ft museum building, the Russell family home, and Charlie’s studio.
The main museum building is 2 stories, and consists of many different galleries. The main focus of the museum is to highlight the works of CM Russell, like his Exalted Ruler oil painting (1912, on exhibit at the museum),
and to educate about what life was like during Charlie’s lifetime. The museum has amassed an extensive collection of Charlie Russell paintings, sketches, and even statues.
The museum also features work by other artists. This bison statue (not a CMR) is located just outside of the large gift shop off of the galleries. There are nearly 2 dozen of these statues, each painted uniquely by different artists, scattered throughout Great Falls. You can stop by the visitor’s center to get a list of locations for the bison – it’s a fun activity to get photos with as many different bison as you can!
Touring the museum can take anywhere from an hour (if you don’t read any of the plaques or exhibits) to all day. There are multiple galleries full of paintings, sketches, bronzes, and other art. The downstairs galleries include several areas with display drawers to view, a living painting (on a 4 minute rotation, watch for the animals!), and even a children’s activity room called the Discovery Center! The kids loved the Discovery Center where they could barter at the Trading Post, dress up in leather chaps, vests, and hats, ride barrell horses, dress up as an Indian woman or a cowboy (the kids loved that these standees were placed in front of a full-length mirror so they could see themselves!), and recreate Charlie’s paintings using magnetic backdrops and painting pieces made of magnetic sheet.
After you have toured the 2 story museum, head out on the grounds to visit Charlie’s home and studio.
In 1900, Charlie and his wife Nancy built this home in Great Falls, Montana, right off of ‘the boulevard’. Nancy was the true business mind behind C.M. Russell and his paintings, and she was the one that promoted his art, and booked him for shows. In 1903, a studio was built for Charlie, who would say, “it’s a good shack for me” of his new workplace, just steps from his home.
Today, the studio sits on the exact location that it was built on, while the house has been moved away from the studio a bit to provide more of a safety buffer in case of fire.
The studio is pictured below. In person, you can see where Russell had the roof raised in his studio so that he could complete his largest work – the 24′ by 12′ painting Lewis and Clark Meet the Flathead Indians (commissioned for the state capitol building, delivered in 1912, and hangs in the House of Representatives to this day).
During his 46 years in Montana, Charlie produced somewhere around 4 thousand (!) pieces of art! The galleries of the CM Russell museum showcase many of those works, and provide visitors a relaxing and enjoyable place to ‘get lost’ in the Old West of Charlie Russell’s day.
The CM Russell Museum is a great destination that offers something for everyone.
Here are our tips for making your visit great:
*Be warned that No Photographs are allowed inside the house, studio, and museum. You can take photos inside the lobby and gift shop only, and outside the museum, house, and studio.
*Secure lockers are provided free of charge to store your valuables (your camera, ahem) while you peruse the galleries.
* The house and studio are closed up in the winter.
*The ideal climate for paintings is 72 degrees, so the museum is kept within a few degrees of that at all times. If you are a snowbird that has acclimated to the warm, you may appreciate a jacket (I sure did!).
*If you are taking kids through the galleries, create your own scavenger hunt by encouraging them to find Charlie’s signature logo (hint: it’s a skull next to his signature) – my littles had fun finding it on each painting (don’t touch tho!).
*Upstairs in Gallery 16, and right next to the restrooms, be sure to stop by and stamp a postcard using the supplies provided! A fun souvenir, or really use the post card to send through the mail! Easy to miss, but a hit with my kids!
*When working your way through Gallery 11 (downstairs), be sure to pick up a Gallery Guide entitled The Bison (interesting for adults, and educational for kids). Here you will also find The Bison Activity Pak, which is a fun activity sheet for kids that includes a crossword puzzle and other activities that focus on information about bison that you will learn about in the gallery.
Our kids all enjoyed our visit to the CM Russell Museum! The older boys were a little surprised by how interesting that they found it, and the girls and Caleb loved the statues, hands on Discovery Center, and the postcard station. It was a great destination for the whole family, and this roadschool mom loved the pain-free history lesson too (not to mention the gorgeous art)!
Great Falls is a great destination for travelers, and a must see for history buffs! You can learn more about the life and art of Charlie Russell, as well as the museum at cmrussell.org.