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The Autry Museum Goes Further West

In its 13th year, the institution is expanding its traditional territory to address issues like multiculturalism.

February 18, 2001|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Patricia Ward Biederman is a Times staff writer and columnist

From its opening in 1988, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage has been both blessed and somewhat burdened by its founder, Hollywood's Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. His generosity (and that of his wife, Jackie) paid for the building, and a bronze statue of him with his faithful horse Champion dominates its atrium. But the cowboy star--and the movie and TV version of the West he symbolizes--has never been the focus of the museum's collections.

Not that the Autry doesn't celebrate the West's always appealing myths and icons. There have been exhibitions devoted to such predictable subjects as Wild West shows and Gen. George Armstrong Custer; there is an annual popular exhibition and sale of the kind of nostalgic Western art that mainstream critics disdain.

But serious scholarship on the West in the broadest sense has also been the museum's mission. And as it enters its 13th year, it's doing what teenagers are wont to do--coming of age. Yes, traditional Western buffs in bolo ties will still find much to enjoy in its galleries, but so increasingly will others who are unlikely to have a Remington in their foyer or a Nudie cowboy shirt in their closet.

More and more confidently, the Autry is exploring the niche it has carved out for itself, a niche that includes the multicultural West and the contemporary West, as well as the West of popular culture and the imagination. It has exhibited surreal Polish western-movie posters, looked at the Disney version of the West and originated "On Gold Mountain," the most extensive museum show mounted on the Chinese American experience. Shows planned for the future reflect creative thinking on such offbeat topics as spaghetti westerns, urban Indians, Jews and the West, the West Coast sound and violence. With little fanfare, it is revamping the museum's permanent exhibits to reflect state-of-the-art scholarship, and transforming its research center into something that looks more and more like a regional think tank.

Executive director and CEO John Gray describes today's Autry as the fulfillment of its founder's vision: "You know what Gene said. He wanted a museum that showed the American West as it was, not as he showed it in his movies."

A former banker and deputy administrator in the Small Business Administration under Clinton, Gray assumed the Autry's leadership last year. Gray sees his mission as building on the accomplishments of his predecessor, Joanne Hale, now president of the museum's board of directors.

"Joanne Hale built the museum in the most beautiful, wonderful and progressive way," he said.

But insiders say the Autry is growing up under Gray.

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Among the most urgent projects on Gray's agenda is the comprehensive revision of the museum's seven permanent galleries. The result will be exhibits that are technologically current and reflect the revolutionary new Western history that has emerged over the last decade.

Gray estimates that it will cost $750,000 to $1 million each to update the galleries, currently named the Spirit of Discovery, Spirit of Romance and so on through Imagination, Opportunity, Conquest, Community, and the Cowboy. Money for the make-over will come from the museum's operating budget of about $12 million a year.

Gray has entrusted leadership of the project to another Autry newcomer, historian Louise Pubols, who earned her doctorate since joining the staff last year. In explaining the American West and presenting it to the public, Pubols said, "there's no one story anymore." To ensure accuracy and the desired complexity, the museum is depending not only on its own expertise, but on a panel of outside experts brought in as consultants. Among their fields of study are the Mexican American experience, labor movements and the West, gender and sexuality, the impact of technology on the West, and history and memory.

In the revamped galleries (the first is scheduled to open in 2002), expect to see the story of the West extend beyond the 1890s into the present day, an emphasis on the interaction among groups rather than stories about conquerors and victims, and displays relating to Western ecology and the role of the federal government in shaping the West.

Pubols talks a lot about layering, presenting many levels of information in a museum sign or exhibit so that it will appeal and enlighten everyone from the youngest child to the knowledgeable adult visitor. The first new, still to be named gallery, which will replace the old Spirit of Discovery hall, will include a replica of a fur-trading post. An excited Pubols describes it: It will be interactive (the museum is overdue for a technological update), a place where visitors won't just push buttons, but will also be able to touch furs and get a visceral sense of what a 19th century post was like.

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