This weekend the Autry Museum of the American West opened 14,000 sq. ft. of new exhibition space and a refurbished garden. There’s a temporary show on Pomo basket artist Mable McKay (1907-1993) and a new installation on native Californians’ relationship to nature. Neither patronizing nor boring, it’s one of the smarter indigenous-centric museum displays you’ll find. (At top: another new installation, of gifts from the Loretta and Victor Kaufman collection. Below, a recreation of McKay’s living room studio.)
Traditionally museums were places where well-meaning white curators interpreted native American cultures for mostly white audiences. This was equally true of the Southwest Museum (founded by newspaperman Charles Lummis) and the Autry Museum (established by “singing cowboy” entertainer Gene Autry). Lummis saw Indians through a romantic filter; Autry saw them as bit players.
Since the 1960s museums have gradually given greater weight to Native American perspectives. This culminated with the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Its founding director—and now the Autry’s director—was W. Richard West Jr., a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. The Smithsonian sought the input of hundreds of tribal elders and activists. Most had no experience in designing museum displays. The result drew prickly reviews. Edward Rothstein, in The New York Times, detected a “studious avoidance of scholarship.”
West took over the Autry in 2012, becoming steward not only of Autry’s cowboy collection but the Southwest Museum’s Indian collection, rivaling the Smithsonian’s. The Autry’s new semi-permanent display, “Human Nature,” is a version 2.0 of the Smithsonian concept. It’s a little free-form and loopy, but it’s got critical thinking as well.
The installation is divided into four themes that feel as arbitrary as they sound (Salmon, Fire, Desert, and Plants). But each has intriguing stories for those who read the gallery texts. Consider fire and the Western landscape. White settlers and artists insisted on seeing Yosemite as an Eden. In fact what they found and admired was partly a creation of Indian forestry. The Indians burned the trees selectively and periodically, to prevent catastrophic forest fires.
In 1878 John Muir—Sierra Club founder and patron saint of well-meaning whites—wrote, “Fire, whether occurring naturally by lightning or through the agency of man, is the great master-scourge of forests.” That attitude prevailed in the natural park movement. Fire (and Indians who start fires) were the enemy.
The Autry installation nails this point by showing two landscape paintings, by Thomas Hill and Edwin Deakin. It has Ron Goode, of the North Fork Mono people, critique them from a native perspective. Goode says of Hill’s Scene of Yosemite—Bridalveil Falls (shown):
“…It’s a beautiful picture of Yosemite… What it also depicts is that the valley was full of trees. It was [actually] very sparse because the Indians had kept the fires going and kept it thin. It was when the Europeans moved to make it a park that it changed to where it became really thick. They’re still that way. They won’t remove the duff. They won’t remove fallen trees and it looks like trash. They’re poor housekeepers, is what it is.”
The result of National Park Service practices was that Western forests became time bombs, vulnerable to catastrophic fires. One result: Mad Men invented Smokey the Bear.
This indigenous point of view—clever, accessible, non-preachy—is increasingly found elsewhere in the Autry. Many of the older displays have been updated too (and the OK Corral audio-animations are long gone). One of the new displays examines the arms race between Europeans and Indians. It is widely supposed that whites arrived in America with an overwhelming advantage in firepower. In fact, an indigenous warrior could shot as many as ten arrows in the time it took a European settler to reload a firearm. Only in the 1840s, with the introduction of the Colt revolver, did whites gain a decisive advantage. The Autry has a display of native arrows, war clubs, tomahawks, and shields, offering a visceral notion of what combat once meant. They are juxtaposed with displays of early revolvers. It’s cause to rethink history and also to ponder what the nation’s founders meant in the Second Amendment. The arms the first citizens had a right to bear were an order of magnitude less deadly than a bow and arrow.
There will be those, in Mount Washington particularly, who see the Autry’s new displays as part of a plan to usurp the Southwest Museum’s mission. But the most engaging parts of the new installations are those that explore the co-evolution of native and immigrant America, blending artifacts from both. That’s something we haven’t seen much at the Southwest, the Autry, or anywhere else.
Below, Harry Fonseca’s American Dream Machine (2005); a trompe l’oeil corner of Matthew Kennedy’s garden, with basalt-column seating from the Devil’s Postpile.
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