The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, or Gilcrease Museum for short, is located northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is most famous for housing the largest collection of artworks and artifacts from the American West and a growing collection of Central and South American relics. “Gilcrease” refers to Thomas Gilcrease, a Muscogee oil magnate and art collector who deeded his collection in 1955; the building and its ground were later turned over to the city of Tulsa in 1958. Since July 1, 2008, this museum has been overseen by a joint partnership between the city and the University of Tulsa.
Helmerich Center for American Research
One of the more notable additions to the Gilcrease Museum would be the Helmerich Center for American Research. Added in 2014, it gave the facility a reliable archive for researchers to pore over more than 100,00 different texts. The collection contains texts dating as far back as 1494 and several notable items contained within include the following:
- A letter that was dictated and signed by Diego Columbus in 1512.
- The Cortez Decree of 1521
- A copy of the Declaration of Independence.
- A copy of the Articles of Confederation signed by Benjamin Franklin.
- A letter penned by Thomas Jefferson on July 1, 1776.
- A collection of manuscripts by John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Chief Peter Pitchlynn of the Choctaw Nation.
Any interested researcher can freely access the documents and texts housed within the archive, provided their perusal is isolated to the Reading Room. The archive’s Reading Room is a secure, temperature-controlled facility that was designed to optimally preserve documents. All texts are preserved within a sturdy concrete structure that was engineered to resist extreme weather. A connector passage between the Reading Room and Document Storage is inspired by the Vasari Corridor that connects the Uffizi with Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. This building also holds the Great Hall, a modest-sized multipurpose chamber.
There are several themed gardens that occupy roughly 23 of the 460 acres of the property. Each of these gardens helps to convey the museum’s purpose by showcasing gardening approaches and techniques across the span of four different time periods.
- The Pre-Columbian era, when the land was wholly handled by the indigenous peoples of the United States.
- The pioneer days when Americans were expanding westward.
- The colonial days when Americans were first getting a grasp of how to survive in the New World.
- The Victorian Era of 1820-1919.
Gilcrease is the sole existing art museum that contains such educational and inspirational gardens within a single site. Tours of these various gardens are available solely by appointment. Lastly, there is also a rock garden to further become attuned to the natural world.
Works began in 2016 to expand and improve upon the Gilcrease Museum. The net result of this endeavor was to instead establish a new museum with around $84 million, rather than trying to bring the existing one up to modern building codes; the logistics indicated that this approach would be the most cost-efficient. At the time of writing this, the museum is temporarily closed until the new museum finishes its construction sometime in early 2025. While the core museum is being remade and the old version demolished, the Helmeric Center archive, Thomas Gilcrease’s house, and Gilcrease’s mausoleum will remain intact on the property.
Establishment of the Gilcrease Oil Company
While Gilcrease grew up within the Muscogee Nation, American expansion left him with 160 acres of land south of Tulsa that turned out to be rich in oil. Understanding oil’s value, Gilcrease established the Gilcrease Oil Company in 1922 and greatly expanded his holdings within a decade. He used his money to visit Europe in the ’20s and ’30s, entranced by the many museums located therein.
Inspired by Europe’s museums and proud of his heritage, Gilcrease focused his museum on the people and culture of the American West. While Gilcrease’s first oil painting was purchased in 1912, most of his collection began in 1939; the same year he held his first public viewing. Fast forward to the 1950s when oil prices were dropping and Gilcrease considers selling off his collection as a preservative measure. Tulsa’s citizens grew concerned and voted 3:1 to issue a $2.25 million bond to settle Gilcrease’s debt. Upon his death in 1962, he willed the remnants of his collection to the museum.