Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Museum Review 8: Autry National Center of the American West Museum

Autry National Center of the American West Museum
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 5 stars (out of 5)

This was my second visit to the Autry Center and my goal for this visit was seeing the parts I missed on my earlier visit in 2006.

What I remember from that visit was being impressed with the museum but not having the mental space to fully appreciate it. I was exhausted from rising at 3 am Eastern time (midnight California time) to make my 6 am flight to California that morning. How I thought I’d have the mental energy to drive to Palm Springs from Los Angeles that day, much less to see a museum, I’ll never know.

I was more alert this time, but I did not accomplish my goal. I spent two hours there but only made it through the downstairs exhibition, which explores the rise of the West, the role of community in shaping the West, and the rise of the cowboy in American folklore.

The Center’s founder, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy of radio, television, and film, had a natural interest in the subject matter and hoped to establish the finest collection of the West. The collection grew in depth through mergers with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the virtual Women of the West Museum. As a result, the museum’s collections represent a wide range of experiences in the settlement and growth of the west.

This is evident in these permanent exhibitions, which not only display exquisite objects, but document them thoroughly, reflecting both outstanding scholarship and a variety of points of view. For example, a gallery about the town saloon not only shows and describes the purpose and setup of these gathering places, but describes the cheating that occurred in the gambling at saloons (complete with examples of rigged games), as well as the role of saloons as primarily male institutions.

Similarly, in a gallery devoted to the Shootout at the OK Corral, the museum challenges many of the myths that surround that incident through objects and citations of scholarship.

One of the galleries in the exhibition on Community contrasted the work, volunteering, political and other experiences of several ethnic, religious, racial and gender communities in the West. What was interesting is that, rather than merely celebrating their presence, this exhibit contrasted their experiences and addressed the differences inherent in them.

The only gallery where the balance seemed to be lacking was the one displaying the museum’s collection of guns. It seemed to be a connection to the Colt company and I detected a pro-gun stance in the gallery. As a result, I was not sure how to take a display of two semi-automatic machine guns.

I only briefly explored the upstairs exhibits, which include permanent exhibits of Western art and sculpture (including decorative arts—and displays of chairs made of animal horns), the role of the West in inspiring the American dream, and an exhibit that serves as an ode to Western radio shows, television shows, and film.

I guess I’ll have to visit again.

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