Cowboys and Indians Reconsidered: The Mythic West, Lassoed In by Reality
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
LOS ANGELES — Breakaway bottles used as props in fake saloon fights, posters for grade-B movies, a Hopalong Cassidy board game, Annie Oakley’s pistols, Gary Cooper’s toupee and a diorama of the O.K. Corral shootout: this is what you might expect to find in a museum founded by America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry.
And here, at the Museum of the American West (formerly the Autry Museum of Western Heritage) in Griffith Park, nostalgic film buffs and aficionados of cowboy culture will find it all, much of it associated with an entertainer whose reputation was made with a guitar and a saddle, but whose greatest hit was a 1949 rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that sold more than 30 million copies.
That is why it seemed so bizarre when, in 2003, the Autry Museum, with its $100 million endowment, absorbed the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, with its neglected world-class collection of 250,000 objects associated with once-flourishing tribes. This takeover caused much consternation. It wasn’t just the old cowboy-versus-Indian battle recurring in modern commercial form. It was the triumph of the phony cinematic West over its authentic past, with Hollywood’s stage sets winning out over relics so neglected through the decades that many had been assaulted by mold, mildew and insect infestation.
But something is needed other than these comfortable formulas to account for what the Museum of the American West has already become. In the next few years it has the potential to map out a new form of historical museum in the United States, one that is neither an intoxicated celebration of Western fantasy — turning itself into another stage set in a fictionalized drama — nor romanticized recompense for those who lost out in the conflict, as is now so often the case; sadly, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington set the standard for a new indulgent, sentimental tone of Indian self-celebration.
The only problem is that this increasingly world class museum is buried in the wilds of Griffith Park (and near impossible to reach by public transportation) instead of being in the heart of the city where it would have some visibility. It is also a musuem that not a single person I know has ever been to - and I have only been to twice myself (and I was almost totally alone in the galleries each time). And now this mistake is about to be compounded by adding onto the complex at the existing site rather than expanding at a location where the public might actually find the museum.