LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The American West, Gene Autry knew, was much more than the ridin’, ropin’ and singin’ he enthralled audiences with in scores of movies and songs, earning the title “The Singing Cowboy.” It was a point he strived to drive home when he opened a museum in Los Angeles in 1988.
Autry’s vision takes a great leap forward Sunday when the Autry Museum of the American West expands to include a garden of native Western flora, as well as new galleries showcasing hundreds of Native American works, some from present day, others centuries old, many never seen publicly.
The expansion, named California Continued, adds 20,000 square feet of gallery and garden space to the museum that, with its red-tiled courtyard and distinctive beige bell tower, evokes images of an 18th century, Spanish-styled California mission — albeit one sandwiched between a zoo and a busy freeway.
Along with many sculptures depicting the Old West and works by prominent artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Frederic Remington, museum officials say visitors will now see one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts found anywhere.
Also included will be more than 70 plants native to California — many medicinal and some endangered — as well as new displays that include Western mixed-media paintings and interactive works showing such sights as California from the highest point in the continental United States (Mount Whitney in the state’s midsection) to its lowest (Death Valley on the Nevada border).
Because it’s the Autry Museum, visitors also will still see such venerable Hollywood artifacts as the Singin’ Cowboy’s Martin guitar, TV Lone Ranger Clayton Moore’s mask and a wealth of silent cowboy star Tom Mix memorabilia. Visitors arriving in the courtyard are still greeted by a life-size sculpture of Autry holding his guitar and flanked by his horse, both perched on a base inscribed with the words to his signature song, “Back in the Saddle Again.”
But the museum’s president, W. Richard West Jr., is quick to point out that Hollywood cowboy memorabilia is, and always has been, a small part of what he declares a world-class museum.
“Gene’s vision, in his own words, was the institution he was establishing should reflect and represent the impact of the American West on this country and on the world. Now that’s fairly ambitious, and that goes far beyond film cowboys,” West said with a chuckle as he looked over the new exhibits earlier this week.
An avid collector of Western artifacts, Autry opened the museum on a 13-acre patch of Los Angeles’ sprawling Griffith Park, a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles Zoo and backed up against Interstate 5.
He died at age 91 in 1998, just a few years before his ambitious vision for the museum’s future began to take shape with its 2003 merger with Los Angeles’ Southwest Museum of the American Indian.
That museum’s stately, century-old building had fallen on hard times, including being badly damaged by the region’s 1994 earthquake. While officials work to restore the building, they have moved about 300,000 artifacts to the Autry.
“This collection that is now in the Autry Museum is a native collection of the very same rank, and in some quarters even better, than the Smithsonian’s,” said West, who was founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Some of the best of the collection on display is contained in the exhibition “The Life and Work of Mabel McKay,” a Pomo Indian basket weaver, healer, civil rights activist and person believed to be the last speaker of her tribal language when she died in 1993.
Her intricately woven, often colorful baskets are accompanied by a recreation of her workroom, narration by her son and other works.
In the nearby “Human Nature” gallery, items range from intricately woven baskets the size of a pinhead to a 1,200-year-old carved bone fishhook recovered from the Channel Islands off California’s coast to mixed-media paintings by contemporary artist Harry Fonseca depicting the California Gold Rush.
The garden contains native plants that caretaker Nicholas Hummingbird hopes will make people realize there is more to Western flora than cactus and sagebrush.
“The goal is to really open people’s minds to the beauty of what California plants are,” he said as he strolled among vines of medicinal plants like creosote and yerba santa as a towering native oak helped drown out sounds from the freeway.
The overall goal, says West, is to show visitors there are many facets to the American West they might not have considered.
“This museum is not a science museum,” he said. “It’s a museum of cultural history.”
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