Experience the exhibits, museum collections, interpretive center, and programs on your own or via the guided walking tours or custom group tours offered by the staff and volunteers.
What’s the history behind the Western Heritage Center?
The building where the Western Heritage Center – a regional history museum – is housed was originally built in 1901 as the first public library in Montana. (Take a walk-thru view of the center on YouTube to see more of the unique architecture and design.)
The Western Heritage Center, or WHC, began its life as a community center displaying a collection of privately owned western artifacts in a historic building for its setting (the former Parmly Billings Memorial Library – Montana’s first public library).
The center was incorporated in 1971 and has been running strong ever since, but with changing faces and ultimately a deepening focus and broader reach.
Now, the WHC has outreach programs, walking tours, changing interactive exhibits, touring displays, and more than 400 oral histories and 40,000 historic artifacts and images on display.
The WHC is also a center for research into western heritage topics, genealogy for locals, and individual research.
A former Smithsonian Institute affiliate, the Western Heritage Center is only one of six Montana museums accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
The museum continues to adhere to the national exhibit and archival standards, with three full-time staff, four part-time staff, and a team of dedicated interns and volunteers.
The WHC received the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award in 2001 (only the second organization to receive the honor that’s typically reserved for individual contributions to the Humanities).
One year later, the WHC became the first Smithsonian Institute Affiliate in the Northern Plains.
Then, from 2004 through 2009, the center received federal appropriations from the United States Department of the Interior for the American Indian Tribal Histories Project (still working today), a program working to contribute to the preservation of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribal histories.
The museum has published books, educational kits, and video materials pertaining to the region’s history, as well, which you can pick up copies of at the museum’s gift shop.
How do I find out what’s going on at the WHC?
The WHC is open year-round for locals and visitors alike, with budget-friendly rates for all and accessible facilities.
To learn more about their current touring exhibits or one-off events, check out their contact information below or give them a ring.
- 2822 Montana Avenue, Billings, MT
- (406)256-6809 (Museum and walking tour reservations)
- Hours: Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00am – 5:00pm
- Season: Year-Round
- Fees: Members – Free, Adults – $5, Students and seniors – $3, Children under 12 – $1
- Discounts offered: Military, Senior Citizens, Student Discount
- Walk-ins welcome
- Reservations required for guided tours and research inquiries
What are the main exhibits and programs at the Western Heritage Center?
The Western Heritage Center has a large number of programs and exhibits to enjoy while you’re taking in the beauty of the old building and intriguing visuals of the center.
The programs available include the
- High Noon Lecture Series – Public speaker series on a range of educational topics
- Historic Walking Tours – In and around the museum and throughout Billings and Yellowstone County (reservations required)
- Special events – Vary by season and opportunity
- Group tours – At the WHC (reservations required)
- Off-site programs and staff lectures – Inquire for more details
- Traveling Exhibits – offered by the museum for check out for groups and programs off-site
- Partnership with Community Projects – including Health by Design, American Indian Tribal Histories Project, and Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board
The onsite exhibits rotate as well, based on new research and highlight selection for museum collections. Current exhibits include
- K. Ralston Studio Cabin
- Conquering Diseases of the Past
- Sewn Together: Stories from the Museum’s Clothing Collection
- Avis Marvelous: Ornithology on the Western Frontier, 1776-1896
- The Beartooth Highway, Building the “Most Beautiful Road in America”
The museum collections housed at the Western Heritage Center include over 40,000 artifacts and historic photographs.
The collections include items such as Native American beadwork, western art (the James Kenneth Ralston collection, for example), architectural drawings, clothing and textiles, historic weapons, western tack, advertising memorabilia, and oral histories pertaining to the Indigenous peoples and places of the Yellowstone River Valley and Northern High Plains regions.
For those who don’t have enough time to fully explore the museum in person on your visit, you may also find intriguing online exhibits.
- Bee-tween the Lines: Bees & Their People
- Expressions (First Nations collection)
- Art in Isolation
- The Southsiders
What walking tours does the WHC offer?
Before calling the WHC up for a reservation, consider your time and availability, as well as the tours available.
Note: Most tours are scheduled on Friday mornings at 10 am from June through September, or on the monthly Thursday evening tours at 6 pm. They do have custom times available as well, for a minimum of 7 people.
Tickets for the tours are $10 for adults, $5 for students, $3 for children, and free for children under 6 (2 per each paying adult). Not all tours begin at the museum, so be sure to know where your group is meeting before you attend.
Bars, Brothels, and Bok Choy: Exploring Minnesota Avenue
This tour is available on Thursday evenings and Friday mornings and takes you through the remnants of Chinatown and the old Southside of the city where the bars and brothels were once housed.
Celebrities & Scandals in Downtown Billings
This tour, available on select Friday dates, explores the former celebrity lives and shocking scandals of the prohibition era of Billings, with peeks into both local lives and scandalous deaths. Featuring the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Tom Cruise, Calamity Jane, and others.
Born a Railroad Town
Also available only on select Friday dates (or by appointment), the history of Billings as a railroad town is explored on this walking tour through the city.
The tour focuses on the founding of the city and how the railroad, even today impacts the town.
Lights of Broadway
Available on select Friday dates, the Lights of Broadway tour walks you through the historic development of North Broadway and the unique historical persons of the early days of the city
Park and Neighborhood Walks
Offering tours of Swords Rimrock Park, Historic Moss Mansion Neighborhood, Riverside Park, South Park, MetraPark and Fairgrounds, or McKinley School and North Elevation Neighborhood, the WHC welcomes visitors to really get to know the lives and history of Billings on the ground.
These tours take you through historic Indigenous sites, gravesites of famous residents like Yellowstone Kelly, other famous residents’ homes, and unique historical events in Billings’ history.
Grave Side Stories – A Walk Through Mountain Cemetery
Finally, the Grave Side Stories tours (available on Fridays) is a stroll through Billings’ first cemetery where folks of Wild West legend now rest. Hear the tales of their adventures and demise.
Western Heritage Center – Conclusion
For those with an interest in the region’s history, the stories of the Indigenous tribes of the region, and quality educational programming, the Western Heritage Center is a family-friendly, affordable option for your visit to Billings.
Plan to spend several hours here for a visit, or more if there are special events or programs occurring during your visit. You may want to check available accommodations in Billings if you are planning a longer visit to take in all the Western Heritage Center and other Museums on offer in the city.
And before you make your way over to the WHC, consider booking a walking tour ahead of time (especially if you’re not around Friday mornings!) and thinking up any histories you want to look up in the archive.