Saturday, April 23, 2011

Autry National Center

This is a great museum! The Autry National Center, created in 2003 by a merger of three museums devoted to the American West, one of which was founded by actor-singer Gene Autry, is located in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California. There are exhibition halls that catalog aspects of life in the Old West along with galleries that display oil paintings illustrating the artists’ views of the 19th century West. Other exhibits showcase how the West was portrayed by Hollywood. Special exhibitions pertaining to the West are also presented.

I spent most of my time at the Autry National Center in the Imagination Gallery, which describes the history of Westerns in film and, to a lesser extent, on TV. This part of the museum includes an entire section devoted to Buffalo Bill and another to Gene Autry, with other areas focused on Native Americans, women, Mexicans, and Asians in Westerns. A highlight is the area set up as a typical Old West main street. Be sure to look up to see the movie cameras on the balcony!

The explanations of the artifacts—props used in movies, posters and lobby cards, costumes worn by actors—were very detailed, and it was fascinating to read about the early years of Westerns. Many actors I had never heard of and now my interest has been piqued to learn more about them and to see their work.

In addition to displays of objects, there were many mini-documentaries about Westerns that lasted about ten minutes, which are well worth the time to watch. Five that I especially enjoyed were those about: Buffalo Bill, with actual footage of him shot at the turn of the 20th century; the first Western movies; early Western movie stars; Westerns on TV, although only shows from the 1950s and 1960s were featured; and how women and minorities have been depicted in Westerns through the years. Although Alias Smith and Jones was not mentioned, this section of the Autry National Center is a must-see for anyone interested in movie and TV Westerns.

Downstairs, the Spirit of Opportunity exhibition included sections on mining and old San Francisco as lived by those in “society.” The Spirit of Conquest exhibition highlighted how the Army and others “tamed” and settled the West. A restored stagecoach was exhibited in this part of the Autry National Center, along with related tools of the trade. The Spirit of Community, spread over a large portion of the downstairs area, featured sections on immigrants from many lands and how they lived in this region of the country; the styles of clothing, the types of work they did, and the everyday objects used by men, women, and children from different ethnic groups was really quite interesting.

Other sections of the Autry National Center, which I unfortunately did not have as much time to spend looking at as I would have liked, included an exhibit on cowboys and their way of life, and the Earps and the O.K. Corral gunfight. I did, however, take the time to look closely at the room set up like an Old West saloon, complete with wooden bar, gambling tables, and lots of whiskey glasses. One of the exhibition halls on the main level is named the George Montgomery Gallery but it was closed the day I visited. I would love to know why the museum has a space named for Curt Clitterhouse (Jailbreak at Junction City)!

The Golden Spur Café has good food and is reasonably priced. Besides jewellery, toys for children, food products, videos and music CDs, the museum shop at the Autry National Center has a large selection of books about the West, both historical and contemporary. I bought a book about train robberies in the Old West; glancing through it, I was disappointed but not surprised to see that Heyes and Curry were not mentioned.

I spent about three hours at the Autry National Center, not including time for lunch at the café or browsing the gift shop, and was not able to see everything before the museum closed. I will definitely return for another visit the next time I am in Los Angeles.

Official website of the Autry National Center:

Official website for Gene Autry: