Cowboys and Indians in Fact and Fable

By Valerie Summers Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

Cowboys and Indians in Fact and Fable


Valerie Summers Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Who would have guessed that "America's Favorite Singing Cowboy," whose career spanned 70 years in the entertainment industry, would leave such a legacy? Gene Autry holds the distinction of being the only performer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for motion pictures, radio, television, recordings and live performances. But Autry wanted to leave something enduring behind that wasn't a shrine to himself.

For years he had dreamed of creating a museum celebrating the American West, but the result went far beyond his original concept. The museum he founded helps visitors understand the real history of the region, but it also takes a fascinating look at how the West was portrayed in popular culture - from art to films to advertising.

At the Autry National Center's entrance courtyard stands a handsome life-size bronze statue of Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with explorers Lewis and Clark. At the rear is a bigger- than-life bronze statue of Autry and his beloved horse, Champion.

Autry's 148,000-square-foot California mission-style museum opened in 1988 on 10 acres in Griffith Park, adjacent to the Los Angeles Zoo. Last November it was renamed the Autry National Center, after the Museum of the American West merged with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. Currently there are two locations, but plans call for the Southwest Museum to eventually move its collection to a new, expanded location in Griffith Park.

Within the original Autry museum, the wide-ranging exhibitions, collections, programs, and educational offerings connect the past to the present, showcasing the many cultures and ethnic groups that have played roles, large and small, in settling and shaping the American West.

The museum's exhibition space is divided into 10 areas on two levels. In the George Montgomery Gallery, the ancient craft of rawhide braiding created by legendary artisan Luis Ortega will be displayed from April 3 through July 4. On loan from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum of Oklahoma City, this exhibit represents the first major retrospective of the artistry of this fifth- generation Californian.

The museum's most popular area, the Spirit of Imagination Gallery, includes exhibits that feature the men and women of Wild West shows, as well as Western movies, radio programs, and TV series. Among them, the influence of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show looms large.

The evolution of the Western film, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man," is traced through costumes, props, scripts and posters. This gallery features one of the museum's most prized possessions, a saddle that once sat in Gene Autry's living room. Many consider it the most elaborately decorated saddle ever made.

Artists' interpretations of the West, both real and mythical, come to life in the Spirit of Romance Gallery. …

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