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Exploring the trials of history at the Autry Museum of the American West

Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

The Autry Museum of the American West, located northwest of Hollywood in Griffith Park and right across from the LA Zoo, offers something for anyone interested in the American West. Visitors will be surprised by the museum’s breadth and its expansive offerings, which span from contemporary art to native and activist art. Someone expecting to find a museum filled with the glorification of the “cowboy lifestyle” and Western movie stars might not be disappointed, per se, but they may end up with a newfound perspective or two. The museum requires half a day (at the very least) to thoroughly enjoy the experience and get something out of it. The diversity of the museum’s items illustrates the museum’s respect for the variety of experiences and narratives that make up the American West, from native communities to stereotypical Hollywood cowboys.

One section of the Autry is devoted to the history of the American West in media, as the museum was founded by famous Western film star Gene Autry. The museum does a careful and impressive job of  accounting and displaying items from iconic media while still acknowledging the faults and historical inaccuracies of the West presented in film and television. Even if you might not recognize all of the actors and players in the Western film scene, it’s fascinating to see the transformation of the genre over time and what resonated with audiences throughout the decades.

Another section of the museum is devoted to showing the minimalist lives of those living out in the American West, with a solid variety in the displayed lifestyles and communities. This part of the museum requires a lot of care and patience to truly appreciate, but thankfully, the Autry is well-labeled and strongly curated; each piece’s place in the sequence allows visitors enough time to do so. Complete with an impressive collection of intricately engraved and decorated Colt pistols, this part of the Autry reveals the care, artistry and devotion of those living out in the West, rather than imparting the looming sense of danger that firearms carry today.

Outside are the rotating exhibits, one of which includes works from artist Rick Bartow who passed in 2016. The permanent exhibit has a large collection of art and items from a variety of artists, striving to recognize, acknowledge and question the museum’s very mission by asking what “art of the American West” really means. The exhibit doesn’t necessarily seek to answer this question; rather, it interrogates itself through a selection of pieces that are more traditional depictions of the West — cowboys on horses, pieces of clothing — and more unexpected pieces — pieces of woodwork, large sculptures — that are perhaps less publicized but still fascinating.

The Autry also has a section devoted to detailing the history of native peoples in the American West, including communities from the Midwest to Alaska. Considering the constant erasure of so many such communities, it’s a welcome sight to see the museum allot an extensive portion of its generously sized building to what is still just a slice of Native American history. The museum also doesn’t claim to represent the experiences of all people and artists, but at the very least it makes an effort to present as large of a spectrum of experiences and viewpoints as possible.

If you’re in the LA area, the Autry Museum is a must-see for all. It’s a great way to get out of the sun – and make sure you spend plenty of time there, otherwise you’re not doing anyone justice!

 

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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