Museums, Exhibitions & GalleriesHeritage, western, old west, American history

The Wyatt Earp Experience

Location
Pella, Iowa, United States of America
Client
Pella Historical Society and Museums
Surface area
2470 sq ft / 255 m2
Completion date
2021
Pella Historical Society & Museums
Overview

The town of Pella, in central Iowa, was founded by Dutch settlers in the 1840s. Today, the local historical society stewards and interprets a collection of some 25 heritage buildings in the center of town. Perhaps the most significant of these buildings — and certainly the most unexpected — is the house where Wyatt Earp lived, from the ages of 13 to 16.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Van Spanckeren Row House is one of the finest surviving examples of the vernacular architecture settlers to Pella brought with them from the Netherlands. GSM had the honour and privilege of working with Pella Historical Society and Museums to transform this heritage building into an immersive narrative journey exploring the life and many legacies of Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project
The American West

Lawman and outlaw, hero and villain, gambler, entrepreneur, and so much more: Wyatt Earp wore a lot of hats over the course of his long life. Best known for his role in the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881, Wyatt Earp was also witness to several other emblematic American moments. As a teenager, he followed a wagon train across the plains and the mountains to California. He kept the law in some of the country’s wildest Western towns; he participated in several gold rushes. In his final years, he was a man about town in the earliest days of Hollywood.

Perhaps more than anything else, Earp was a man in the right place at the right time. Over the course of his long life he surfed the crest of the era of the American West, and as a result his name has become central to and inseparable from this most enduring of America’s creation myths.

Young Wyatt Earp (top). A large mosaïc of movie posters covers the walls of one of the rooms on the first floor. The story of Wyatt Earp has been told through countless films, biographies, and TV shows, participating in the creation of his myth. (bottom)

“This exhibit is much different than the other 24 buildings on our historical campuses. It’s interactive, it’s more modern and spare in its approach, and it trends much more forward to where museums are heading .

It’s exciting to see the reactions of visitors who are not expecting this kind of experience from a small, Midwestern town.“

Valerie Van Kooten

Executive Director, Pella Historical Society & Museums

Iowa connection

That this legendary figure spent his formative years in a small Dutch town in central Iowa, however, is a surprise to most. How much did growing up in Pella shape the man Wyatt Earp became? In some ways, we can really only speculate … and that’s exactly what we set out to do!

GSM Project worked with local historians, local artists, and a dedicated team from the Pella Historical Society and Museums to dig into historical records, take stock of the impressive amount of mythology that’s out there, and to use what we had at our disposal — a historic house, some archival photos, and a great story with a magnetic main character — to paint a picture of life in Pella in the time leading up to the Civil War.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project

The Van Spanckeren Row House, the Earp family residence.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project
Very little to work with

One of the major challenges of this project was the absolute scarcity of information available regarding Earp’s early days. A notoriously private man, Wyatt Earp left behind very little by way of material culture or documentation even of his adult years. His childhood days — one of nine children in an unexceptional family in a frontier town — are largely lost to history.

Without any objects that could be traced to the Earp family, we worked with diary entries, census data, historic photographs … and not much else. While a number of biographies exist on Earp, most are considered wildly speculative and only offer a few fragments of authentic material upon which scholars can generally agree.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project
An audio-driven narrative experience

Our approach was to create an emotional, theatrical journey, one that begins in the earliest days of Pella, and invites visitors to make their way forward through time. With an audio guide in hand, visitors listen to oral fragments delivered by a narrator, other characters from the past and present, and sometimes Wyatt Earp himself.

Each room has its own story, whether it is the Earps arriving in town to seek their fortune, young Wyatt trying to find his feet as an outsider in this Dutch community, or the young man seeking escape in the great outdoors of the American Midwest — with the country on the brink of Civil War.The audioscapes are accompanied by theatrical and often surprising environments, designed in collaboration with theatre producers Théâtre de la Pire Espèce. As visitors are invited to tiptoe their way through this creaky house, they hear the whisperings of the ghosts of the past as if the house was the stage and the visitors had stepped behind the curtain.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project

A phonograph icon identifies the audio beacons throughout the entire experience, representing both sound and the American ingenuity of the 19th century. Beacons helps visitors navigate into each room’s audioscape. Audio stories allow the audience to hear multiple characters with a variety of points of view and opinions about Wyatt, the main character of the story. Immersed in the audio landscape, audiences witness a mix of hearsay, historical perspectives, archival recordings and even country music!

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project

“Since we had very little content and artifacts to present, the experience leaves room for imagination. Everyone can build his own piece of Wyatt Earp's story and create their images of his life like in a novel. ”

Marie-Claude Baillargeon

Creative Director

Pella Historical Society & Museums
Katharine Vogel - GSM Project

An immersive illustrated graphic installation by local artist Nathan T. Wright covers the space partly on the walls, windows, floor and ceiling. Graphics feature texts and illustrations, drawing lists of important aspects of Wyatt’s many trajectories.

An experience to speak about

When Pella Historical Society and Museums came to GSM Project, they were looking for a museum partner who would help them create something that Pella had never seen before: something bold that would have their primary audiences of locals and regular visitors excited at the new offer, and a younger generation attracted to the museum for the first time.

To make sure the Wyatt Earp Experience would deliver on this requirement, we crafted a visitor experience that strikes a balance between the raw simplicity of clear, compelling storytelling — a story you could get lost in — with stunning and evocative sets, in the spirit of visual metaphors rather than historical reconstructions. This design makes Wyatt Earp's story accessible and fun, so that everyone can take some part of Wyatt Earp’s life for their own.

Katharine Vogel - GSM Project

At the end of experience, visitors can feel the presence of Wyatt Earp himself, here in the shadows of his childhood home.

Credits
  • Designer: GSM Project
  • Co-Creative Direction & Scriptwriting: Théâtre de la Pire Espèce
  • General Contractor + Fabricator: Gropen
  • Contractor: Sprague Construction
  • Architectural Historian: Wayne Stienstra
  • Electrical Engineers: Gritters Electric Inc.
  • AV & Lighting Supply & Integration: Lumen, Spectrum Integrators & XYZ
  • Media Production : Kazak
  • Audio-Guide: Guide-ID
  • Mural Artist: Nathan T. Wright
  • Modeller : Jérôme Poirier
  • Transportation: Cargolution
  • Metal: Métal Saint-Jean

Summary

In collaboration with local historians and artists, GSM Project designed and built the Wyatt Earp Experience inside the heritage house where the gunslinger lived as a teenager. The new experience paints a picture of life before the Civil War and sheds light on the legendary figure’s earliest days.