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The Autry museum aims for the bigger picture in its gun displays

Arts and CultureArtMuseumsFirearmsBookSamuel ColtUlysses S. Grant

Playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that a gun should never be displayed onstage without a reason. If it is seen in the first act, he advised, it ought to go off by the third.

In other words, writers should not clutter a narrative with distractions that don't lead anywhere.

But in recent years historians and exhibitions staff at the Autry National Center of the American West have asked themselves whether the Griffith Park museum's gun displays met a test comparable to the one posed by the great Russian dramatist.

The Autry deals with the history, landscape and culture of the West, including exhibits about the frontier days and their depiction on film and television.

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In that context, was it using firearms responsibly? Were they there just for show and the thrill that attaches to any implement of destruction — especially if it's associated with someone famous or is beautifully crafted, as is much of the Autry's firearms collection?

Or did the museum deploy guns purposefully, in ways likely to help museum-goers learn about the history of the West?

Museum insiders weren't the only ones wondering.

"We get comments all the time," said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry's curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms. "Many people appreciate that we're looking at firearms through a historical lens. Others are critical. They've asked, 'Why put firearms on display at all?'"

Richardson said he has kept the gun critics fully in mind over the past few years while developing the museum's newest permanent installation, the Gamble Firearms Gallery, which opened in July. The need to come up with good answers grew more intense last December after the elementary school shooting in Connecticut.

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"After a tragedy like Newtown, you have to ask yourself, 'What are we doing, why are we doing it, and why is it appropriate?'"

In a recent tour of the Gamble gallery and the nearby Greg Martin Colt Gallery, Richardson showed how the Autry's thinking has evolved and said that the display of guns in some other areas of the museum is outdated and needs to be rethought and redone. That can't happen overnight, because it takes time and a good deal of money for a museum to research and install a new display.

The Colt Gallery features a collection of more than 100 guns the Autry has owned and shown since it opened in 1988, bought at far less than their market value from George Strichman, a former chairman of Colt Industries who had built an impressive private collection and wanted to share it with the public intact.

Richardson, who came to the Autry in 2007, oversaw a complete reconfiguration of the gallery before it reopened two years ago with its current display. It traces the history of Samuel Colt's company and how its chief product, the Colt revolver, evolved.

Many splendid examples have beautifully carved or embossed handles and gold- or silver-engraved barrels and cylinders. Some were originally given as gifts to U.S. presidents, a tradition for Colt (although sometimes interrupted) since Andrew Jackson received the first one. Samuel Colt's personal collection was left to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., by his widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt.

Richardson says the Autry gallery remains a legitimate exhibit that informs viewers about an interesting topic — the development from 1835 to the end of the 19th century of revolvers widely used in the West.

But if he had to do it over again today, the Colt Gallery would tell a very different story. What's lacking, he said, is the bigger historical picture. We see how the guns developed but not about who aimed them and with what intents, outcomes and consequences. Those questions figure to be answered this fall when Richardson's book, "Colt: The Revolver of the American West," is published by Rizzoli, with pictures and accompanying essays on 100 key guns.

The bigger picture — and the wish to give good answers to those who question why the Autry shows guns at all — is reflected in the new Gamble Gallery.

George Gamble, a Napa vintner and rancher, and grandson of a Procter & Gamble founder, donated about 50 prime Western guns to the Autry. The new gallery augments his gifts with other guns from the museum's collection that help bring out the themes Richardson had in mind.

Some display cases show how a given weapon or innovation moved history along. The Kentucky rifle, not a mass-made brand but a genre that was hand-crafted by individual artisans based on a common flintlock technology, was "longer, lighter and more accurate than traditional European longarms," the wall text tells us, and Davy Crockett — actually an actor voicing a written testimonial that the frontiersman sent a gunmaker in 1834 in part of the exhibition — vouches for its utility.

For those who'd ask, "Why show firearms?," Richardson said, "the answer is this is the gun that opened the frontier to settlement. I'm not saying it's good or bad but that this gun is tied to Western history in this way."

The tying of weapon to historical context and effect continues in other displays, The Hawken rifle and Sharps rifle came later and were heavier. The Hawken was used mainly by hunters and trappers who opened much of the West to eventual settlement, the Sharps was a primary instrument of annihilation for the buffalo, whose near-extinction had dire consequences for Plains Indian tribes who depended on it.

A pearl-handled, gold-inlaid Smith & Wesson "pocket pistol" given to Ulysses S. Grant in 1870 has celebrity-gawker value, to be sure, but it's part of a display on "Peace, Violence and Justice." In this context one thinks of the dangers posed by standard-issue versions that were less opulent but still easily concealed. The guiding principle, Richardson said, is to use the most beautifully crafted objects wherever possible, consistent with the historical topic at hand.

Where the Gamble Firearms Gallery now stands was once the site of the Autry's chief embarrassment: a kitschy diorama of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, featuring life-size dummies of the participants, each of whom delivered silly recorded dialogue when a light came up on his face.

Now Richardson has his eye on an upstairs gallery devoted to western-themed entertainment, including pieces associated with the museum's singing-cowboy founder, Gene Autry.

"It's kind of a glorification of cowboys and a bygone era," the curator said. "That seems ever more outdated, and that will have to be addressed in the near future. It provides very little context. The scholarship, the debate around the western [movie] and its evolution, none of that is expressed in that gallery. As we make these changes, unfortunately it does highlight other areas of the museum that need to be reevaluated."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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