Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cowboys, Indians, and Everyone Else - Adding Nuance To Homage to Hollywood Cowboys

NY Times writer Edward Rothstein had a thoughtful piece yesterday on the Autry Center of the American West.  Gene Autry was all over the radio and then television and movies when I was a kid.  A singing cowboy, whose "Happy Trails" is still a fixture in my head.  [Just goes to show how our memories aren't such good guides.  When I looked up "Gene Autry Happy Trails" it gave me Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  Gene Autry's song was "Back in the Saddle Again." But I can understand the cross wiring.  Roy Rogers was the other big singing cowboy.]   I'm including the video for those who have never heard of Gene Autry or the song.   It's part of the historical context for the rest of this.

Autry made a lot of money and put up a monument to the cowboy to keep his memorabilia in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, not far from the LA zoo.  We've passed it on any number of occasions while in LA over the years, but never had any interest except maybe as a lark to look at the cowboy kitsch.

But the article says this place is becoming more serious:
You don’t hear shootouts at the Autry National Center of the American West any more, and the gunslingers at the O.K. Corral have been put out to pasture. Hollywood’s singing cowboy Gene Autry, whose fortune helped establish this institution in 1988, a decade before his death, is still cast in bronze out front, but his guitar and memorabilia have been retired to a modest display case. Even the museum’s central mural, “Spirits of the West,” which exultantly portrays that realm’s history, from Spanish missionaries to Clint Eastwood, has curtains that can be drawn to shield visitors from its out-of-sync sensibilities. 
Instead of simply promoting the Hollywood driven myths of the cowboy West, the museum is now trying to balance that with other perspectives on the West. 
The Autry no longer celebrates the Wild West the way the Disney “Imagineers” who designed it once expected it would — or even as it did when I visited seven years ago, as its evolution was well under way. It is long past High Noon. Last year, the Autry brought in a new chief executive, W. Richard West Jr., who is not only an American Indian (Cheyenne and Arapaho) but was also founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. [Here's my own post on that Smithsonian Museum.] Two new permanent exhibitions (including a multicultural display of Western art) and two temporary exhibitions (one on Jews in Los Angeles, the other on Hopi spirit dolls) make no effort to bring the Old West back to life. They struggle, instead, to define something else.
Rothstein goes on to discuss the difficulties of changing the sensibilities of an institution like this.  He finds the different perspectives being added, but mostly they are separate and don't show the integration of them all.  This is a thoughtful essay that anyone interested in how history is portrayed and rethought, and the role museums play in that process, will want to read.

Maybe when we're in LA next week to check in on my mom, we can find time to check it out ourselves.

[UPDATE Aug. 16, 2014:  We did check it out last year and here's the post How Many Years Did The Pony Express Run and Other Tidbits From The Autry Center for the American West Part 1.  (There isn't a Part 2.)]

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