A Western World: Poets visit the Museum of the American West

Mary Devine    


On Sunday, Oct. 29, some of the Whittier College Poets took an afternoon excursion to the Autry Museum of the American West, located in Griffith Park. The Museum holds a countless amount of historical artifacts, starting from before the pilgrims set foot on American soil  and all the way through to the Chicano movement of the 1960s. Each exhibit focuses on a wide variety of diverse cultures that reside in Southern California, Texas, and other states of the American West. 

The Autry Museum was founded by Gene Autry, a legendary recording artist and movie star. According to the museum, Autry starred in 93 featured movies with a majority of them being Western films. Along with being a movie star, Autry recorded over 600 songs which he either wrote or helped co-write and starred in his very own radio show. Not long after all his achievements, Autry became known as “America’s Favorite Cowboy.” The museum opened in 1988, making Autry’s dream of one day building a museum to display and capture that history and culture of the American West a reality. Almost 30 years later, the museum is still very popular. According to the museum’s official website, the Autry Museum of the American West was voted “Favorite Museum” three years in a row, from 2014-2016 by the Los Angeles Daily News Readers. 

Given the chance to explore individually, the Poets separated themselves from the group and headed toward the different exhibits displayed in the museum. Amongst these exhibits were Play!, La Raza, Standing Rock: Art and Solidarity, California Continued, Art of the West, along with many galleries highlighting Western film, cowboys, and the lifestyle of the Old American West.   

An exhibit entitled Play! was at the front of the museum. Here, the Poets observed what children played with from as early as the 1800s, when the exploration of the American West began, to present day. The exhibit featured toys from different cultures, such as Native American toy pots and tepees, settler children’s corn husk dolls, and multi-ethnic dolls of the 1950s. The Poets, along with other guests, could interact with movable displays and build their own houses out of Lincoln Logs and Legos. 

The Museum also addressed major political movements of the American West, most of which were fairly recent. La Raza concentrated on the 1960s Chicano Movement in Los Angeles. When first walking in, a guest is approached by a large wall full of newspaper articles on the movement. As one continued to explore the exhibit, they were surrounded by pictures of protest: Chicanos holding picket signs with the phrase “¡Viva la Raza!”, images of police brutality, and the unjustified murder of hundreds of Chicanos. 

Following the very serious topic of the Chicano movement was the Standing Rock: Art and Solidarity exhibit. This exhibition focuses on the recent political campaign launched by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota to terminate the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a construction that would have threatened the Sioux’ water supply. Different articles of clothing, posters, and propaganda were displayed for all to see. 

Along with strong political topics, the Autry Museum confronted the minority stereotypes in an exhibit of films from the early to late 20th century. These stereotypes consisted of the weak, sexualized label of women; the savage nature of Native Americans; the theiving life of a bandito; and the incompetent criminal nature of the African American sharecropper and how these roles evolved over time.

The museum continued on the topic of minorities in an exhibition of the Old American West. In this display, viewers were allowed to step back in time and visit the lifestyles of different ethnicities and cultures from the exploration of the American West to the start of the 20th century. Here one observed and read about the clothings, traditions, and struggles of the Chinese, Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, and European Immigrants. 

After walking through the different exhibitions, the Poets were able to explore the beautiful outdoor ethnobotanical garden, where over 60 native California species of plant live. Here, the different uses of plants were displayed. As remedies for headaches, cough, athlete’s foot, and many more ailments. 

The Autry Museum of the American West is much more than an institution of cowboys. The museum digs deeper into the lives of the people who occupied our beautiful land and puts a diverse group of cultures and traditions on display.  Major political stances come alive and inform the view at the museum. If given the chance, each Poet should go and see what the Autry Museum has in store for them.   

Mary Devine/ Quaker Campus

Mary Devine/Quaker Campus