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How the West Was Won, Round 2 : The Only Question at the Gene Autry Museum Is How It Will Be Interpreted

December 20, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

It was a classic showdown of the new West.

On one side, the Gene Autry Foundation needed a site for its proposed Western Heritage Museum and Griffith Park seemed like a natural choice.

On the other side, community and environmental activists made their stand, arguing that a public park is no place for what they portrayed as a movie cowboy's self-aggrandizing sideshow.

In the continuing saga of the real West, nothing is simple. Instead of six-shooters, the battle was fought with public review sessions, political lobbying and environmental impact statements. Who wore the white hats and who wore black depended on one's perspective.

Last October, museum supporters won the rhetorical shootin' match, and workers have already raised a three-story shell of steel studs and cinder blocks on a 13-acre swatch of gently sloping parkland across from the Los Angeles Zoo.

Matter of Conflict

By next October, the museum staff will have filled the cavernous structure with history. But the so-called taming of the American West is still a matter of conflict among historians. Myths and realities are inextricably tangled. Interpretations tend to be tainted with the politics of the present.

Yet, how successfully society pushes on to future frontiers may well depend on how clearly we understand this crucial era of our past, historians argue. And with 52,000 square feet of exhibit space and an initial budget of $25 million--excluding the price of artifacts--the Autry museum is certain to have a significant effect on America's collective appreciation of its Western heritage.

Much of the planning for the new Western Heritage Museum is being done in Autry's suite of red-carpeted offices at Golden West Broadcasting on Sunset Boulevard.

A Bollin parade saddle, heavy with silver, occupies his receptionist's office. Artist Frederic Remington's bronze Indian war parties prowl about, bronze broncos toss cowpokes, and sculpted owls and eagles and big horn sheep occupy other perches in the room.

All of these will eventually have a home in the museum.

"Indian Joe," a wizened plastic character in full headdress and faded denims, slumping in a chair behind Autry's desk, won't.

But the staff plans to enlarge to "heroic size" the centerpiece of Autry's inner sanctum--a bronze sculpture of the singing cowboy serenading his horse--and place it in the museum's courtyard.

Which should not be taken as a confirmation of critics' suspicions that the place will lionize the "singing cowboy," said Joanne Hale, vice president and executive director of the museum.

Set Three Goals

The "dream" of a Western museum is something Autry has had since he started collecting artifacts in the 1940s, Hale said. She added, however, that from the moment serious planning began, Gene and his wife, Jackie Autry, along with Hale and her husband, Monte--longtime friends of the Autrys--fixed on three goals for the museum.

It will be "a true cultural and educational center," it will strive for accreditation with the American Assn. of Museums, and it will be "so exciting, educationally, that schoolchildren won't even know that they have learned," Hale said.

She placed ads for a curator in publications of the American Association of Museums and the American Assn. of State and Local Historians.

More than 40 applicants sent in resumes. Hale interviewed three finalists.

Historians Hired

James H. Nottage, then supervisory historian for the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, accepted the job of curator. John P. Langellier, who had been director of museums for the state of Wyoming, became research historian.

Both said they were excited not only by the broad approach to Western history the museum proposed to take, but also by the museum's commitment to innovation, as evidenced by the fact that Hale and the Autrys had decided to use Walt Disney Imagineering to design and create the exhibits--a controversial move by the standards of some museum professionals.

Any fears the historians had that Disney might take a Cowboy Mickey approach have been allayed, they said.

"On occasion, I've had to remind them: 'Hey guys, it's a terrific show, but we're not Disneyland,' " Langellier said. He added, though, that the Disney-designed exhibits "are slick and compelling--these are some of the best ways to teach history today."

And the curator and historian stressed that they are responsible for the content. Like pedagogues filling a textbook, they'll decide what to emphasize, what to ignore and how to interpret a period about which thousands of books have already been written.

In a phone conversation, Autry, 80, revealed his personal view of Western history as a time in which Anglo settlers "all rode horses" and "lived in log cabins" in the wilderness. But Nottage said he has received absolutely no pressure from Autry or the foundation regarding how to interpret history. The museum, he and other staff members said, will embrace the complex issues surrounding the history of the West.

And the issues are complex.

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