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MUSEUMS : How the West Was Spun : A symposium at the Autry looks at the shaping of our views of the American frontier.

June 09, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — All of us know what the American West looks like, even those who have never been there.

It looks like John Wayne, riding tall in the saddle past the epic landforms of Monument Valley. It looks like the cover of a pulp magazine, where a fearless Buffalo Bill goes mano a mano with a fearsome Indian. It looks like a 1940s travel poster that promises the traveler a view of the Southwest, not from a kidney-jolting stagecoach, but from the climate-controlled sanctuary of the world's first air-conditioned bus.

These images of the West are no less true for being full of distortions, half-truths and outright falsehoods. As writer Larry McMurtry, who has explored the territory that lies between Western fact and fiction as ably as anyone, observes: "The lies about the West are more powerful than the truth about the West--so much more powerful that, in a sense, lies about the West are the truths about the West--the West, at least, of the imagination."

The ways the West has been imagined are the subject of a symposium this weekend at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Called "Imaging the West," the symposium is more than a simple gathering of historians, anthropologists, artists and others to explore the intersection between the real West and the West that exists wherever people have gone to Silverado in their minds. It is also a coming of age for an institution that is on the cusp of respectability as a major archive and interpreter of the American West.

The problem for the Autry, as well as its raison d'etre, has always been--well, Gene. The octogenarian cowboy actor and singer generously endowed the museum and made it possible. But his identification with the institution has led to the widespread misconception that the museum is little more than a collection of Autry's gold records and flashy Western wear. In fact, in no small part because of Autry's vision, his museum is far more than a repository for the wit and wisdom of Pat Buttram. This weekend's symposium is evidence of just how much more.

The heart of the symposium will be a series of scholarly papers dealing with neglected aspects of the Western experience, from how Hollywood has influenced the dress of working cowboys to the way Southwestern Indians have been portrayed in picture postcards. Some of the sessions will turn well-loved Western stereotypes on their heads, such as one on Annie Oakley that will reveal how desperately the sharpshooter craved Victorian respectability, serving tea in her tent between shows and crocheting when she wasn't blasting at bull's-eyes.

The symposium, which is open to the public, also marks the opening this spring of the museum's research center, a place where scholars can now turn for a large and growing collection of materials about the West, with a special emphasis on Western myth and legend and how the West has been pictured in advertising, film and television. All the center's holdings, which include 25,000 books and 2,000 linear feet of non-book materials, are catalogued electronically as part of the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). World Wide Web pages are in the works, says Kevin Mulroy, the center's director.

According to scholarly observers, the Autry is now filling a niche that more venerable centers of Western scholarship have ignored. As Western historian Martin Ridge, senior research associate at the aristocratic Huntington Library in San Marino and chair of a symposium session on cowboys and cowgirls, explains, the Huntington has "a superb collection of Western Americana. It's unrivaled on the West Coast. But the image of the cowboy is not something we do."

Mulroy agrees that the Autry has something to offer that even the Huntington can't. The Autry research center, Mulroy says, "is a very different kind of library. They'll be pulling out the rare books, while we'll be pulling out a tourist brochure or a movie poster." Indeed when Ridge needed a lobby card for the autobiography of cowboy star William S. Hart that Ridge recently edited, he found it at the Autry.

Two of the current shows at the Griffith Park museum illustrate the unique perspective the Autry brings to exploration of the Western experience. "Walt Disney's Wild West" deals with Davy Crockett and other Western images created by one of the most important shapers of modern popular culture, Walt Disney and his successors at the Walt Disney Co.

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