It was an unexpected juxtaposition. A Japanese-American woman in the loveliest of kimonos poured tea according to an ancient ritual. Nearby, two men wearing string ties oohed and aahed at a larger-than-life bronze statue of singing cowboy Gene Autry, posed alongside his faithful horse, Champion.
If you came to the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum expecting a curator of chaps or do-si-docents, forget it. Welcome to the surprisingly polycultural Autry, where diversity is an important part of the program.
Dedicated to explicating the American West, the Autry might have taken the low road and celebrated the predominantly white West of celluloid and cliche--the monosyllabic cowboy, his freckled skin turning to leather in the sun; the frontier wife, ready to defend to the death her clutch of towheads; the imperial explorers and terminally grizzled mountain men.
Those icons of the Old West are certainly represented at the Autry, whose treasures range from Albert Bierstadt paintings to chenille kiddie curtains bearing the hallowed name of Hopalong Cassidy. But the Griffith Park museum is devoting an increasing amount of money, time and space to showing visitors that the American West was created not just by Anglos but by people of diverse ethnic and cultural origins.
As Mexican-American staffer Mary Ann Ruelas says, with obvious relief, "I think people are beginning to understand we're more than Gene's closet or the Giddyup Museum."
The Autry's commitment to multiculturalism isn't new. Since its founding in 1988, the Autry has surprised thousands of visitors with the fact that many cowboys were African American. The often heart-breaking history of Native Americans is an essential part of the Western tale the museum attempts to tell. A current exhibit documents the unique contribution of Japanese-American women to Western life, and past shows have chronicled the contributions of Russians and Italians. Only last year, the museum initiated an annual Juneteenth celebration to mark the end of slavery in the traditional style of the black communities of Texas.
But the Autry's commitment to polyculturalism is being reaffirmed in a major way with a new permanent gallery, to open Memorial Day weekend. Called the Spirit of Community, the gallery will show how six different ethnic or cultural groups interacted with the dominant Anglo-American culture in and around the year 1890.
The new exhibit, which cost $500,000, was conceived by Michael Duchemin, the Autry's curator of history. "It came about," Duchemin says, "because the museum recognized that we weren't diverse enough in our representation and interpretation of the history of the West." To counter that deficiency, Duchemin proposed that the museum tell the interconnected stories of seven Western communities: Anglo American, Asian, Mexican, Native American, African American, Canadian and Mormon.
As Duchemin explains, each of these groups was a major player in the West of 1890. In that turbulent year, the year the Mormon church officially renounced polygamy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had 150,000 followers in the American West. Some were Mormons who had trekked to Utah after anti-Mormon violence farther east, only to find themselves hounded by evangelical Protestants who urged them to "Get right with God!" Others were recent European converts to Mormonism, many of whom sailed from the English port of Liverpool on their journey to what would soon become the 45th state. Only immigrants of German origin were more numerous than Mormons in the West in 1890, Duchemin says.
The Spirit of Community exhibit will consist of artifacts, maps, photographic enlargements and other objects, plus explanatory material. Each community's material will be displayed behind Plexiglas in cases--one to a cultural group--that resemble buildings. The exterior architecture of each of these display areas relates to the group whose story is being told. Thus, the Mexican area appears to be made of stuccoed adobe (it's actually made of fire-retardant materials, including fiberglass), with a tile roof and the distinctive \o7 canales\f7 , or rain gutters, typical of Spanish colonial architecture.
The Asian area--mostly devoted to the Chinese--takes a different architectural tack. By 1890, many Western Chinese were concentrated in urban Chinatowns that had formerly housed non-Asians. Given this history, the exhibit's Asian space looks like one of the brick buildings, designed by Anglo-American architects, that filled the downtowns of San Francisco and other Western cities. But the building has been modified by its Asian occupants. Its window sills and doorway have been painted, and streamers have been hung, in the bright purples, yellows and greens that the Chinese believed brought prosperity and other things devoutly to be wished.