Old West Exhibit Opens New Frontier at Autry Museum : History: The stories and contributions of six ethnic and cultural groups are chronicled.


A Japanese American woman in the loveliest of kimonos poured tea according to an ancient ritual. Nearby, two men wearing string ties oohed and aahed at larger-than-life bronze statues of singing cowboy Gene Autry alongside his faithful horse, Champion.

If you come to the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum expecting a curator of chaps or do-si-docents, forget it. At the surprisingly multicultural museum, diversity is an important part of the program.

Dedicated to explicating the American West, the Autry might have taken the easy trail and celebrated the predominantly white West of celluloid and cliche--the monosyllabic cowboy, his freckled skin turning to leather in the sun; the frontier wife, ready to defend to the death her clutch of towheads; the imperial explorers and grizzled mountain men.


Those icons of the Old West are certainly represented at the Autry, whose treasures range from Albert Bierstadt paintings to chenille kiddie curtains bearing the hallowed name of Hopalong Cassidy. But the Griffith Park museum is devoting an increasing amount of money, time and space to showing visitors that the American West was created not just by whites but by people of diverse ethnic and cultural origins.

As Mexican American staff member Mary Ann Ruelas says: “I think people are beginning to understand we’re more than Gene’s closet or the Giddyap Museum.”

Since its founding in 1988, the Autry has surprised thousands of visitors with the fact that many cowboys were African American. The often heartbreaking history of Native Americans is an essential part of the Western tale the museum attempts to tell. A current exhibit documents the unique contribution of Japanese American women to Western life, and past shows have chronicled the contributions of Russians and Italians. Last year, the museum initiated a Juneteenth celebration to mark the end of slavery done in a style that has become traditional in black communities in Texas.

Still, the museum felt the need for a greater commitment to multicultural issues. To address the need, the Autry will open a permanent gallery on Memorial Day weekend called the Spirit of Community. The gallery will show how six ethnic or cultural groups interacted with the dominant whites in and around the year 1890.

The exhibit, which cost $500,000, was conceived by Michael Duchemin, the Autry’s curator of history.

“It came about,” Duchemin says, “because the museum recognized that we weren’t diverse enough in our representation and interpretation of the history of the West.”


Duchemin proposed that the museum tell the interconnected stories of seven Western communities: white, Asian, Mexican, Native American, African American, Canadian and Mormon.

As Duchemin explains, each of these groups was a major player in the West of 1890. In that turbulent year, the year the Mormon church officially renounced polygamy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had 150,000 followers in the American West. Some were Mormons who had trekked to Utah after anti-Mormon violence farther east, only to find themselves hounded by evangelical Protestants who urged them to “Get right with God!” Others were recent European converts to Mormonism, many of whom sailed from the English port of Liverpool on their journey to what would soon become the 45th state. Only immigrants of German origin were more numerous than Mormons in the West in 1890, Duchemin says.

The Spirit of Community exhibit will cover 2,800 square feet and consist of artifacts, maps, photographic enlargements and other objects, plus explanatory material. Each community’s material will be displayed behind cases--one to a cultural group--that resemble buildings. The architecture of each of these display areas relates to the group whose story is being told. Thus, the Mexican area appears to be made of stuccoed adobe (it’s actually made of fire-retardant materials, including fiberglass), with a tile roof and the distinctive canales , or rain gutters, typical of Spanish colonial architecture.

The Asian area--mostly devoted to the Chinese--takes a different architectural tack. By 1890, many Chinese were concentrated in urban areas that had formerly housed non-Asians. Given this history, the exhibit’s Asian space looks like one of the brick buildings, designed by white architects, that filled the downtowns of San Francisco and other Western cities. But the building has been modified by its Asian occupants. Its window sills and doorway have been painted, and streamers have been hung, in the bright purples, yellows and greens that the Chinese believed brought prosperity and other things devoutly to be wished.

At the center of the exhibit is a fabulous artifact--a gleaming Silsby steam-operated fire engine, made about 1860, that was the pride of Carson City, Nev. You can look at the fire engine from two very different points of view.

“From one perspective, it shows the power and dominance of the Anglo community,” Duchemin says. But because a fire was one of the few occasions when ethnically polarized towns of Western America might work together for the common good “it can also be seen as a unifying piece,” he says. Duchemin trusts that visitors will make up their own minds.

From the beginning, the project was conceived as a collaborative effort between the museum and the communities being featured. The Autry enlisted the help of a diverse collection of consultants. The advisers each have a professional understanding of what makes an evocative exhibit and other museum expertise. But each is also an ethnic and cultural insider who can bring experience and special sensitivity to the project.

The consultants have been very much involved, Duchemin says. They have reviewed the “scripts” that are the basis for the signs and other written materials in the exhibit and have ensured that each ethnic story is told in its own voice, not that of the dominant culture. Eventually, the Autry hopes to have a community-based advisory board with a revolving membership of 25 or 30 people.

As one example of the consultant’s insight, Duchemin points to Suellen Cheng’s insistence that the woman featured in the Asian section be a merchant’s wife, not a prostitute, as were many of the first Chinese women in the West.

Cheng, a curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, objected to focusing too much attention on a woman who was essentially a slave. She argued that wives, while few in number, were more representative after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred unmarried Chinese women from entering the country. Cheng insisted that wives and mothers were more central to the creation of community than marginal members of the demimonde.

An embroidered silk wedding costume is included in the Asian section, Osage marriage garb in the Native American section. Eventually, the museum would like a wedding dress for every community featured in the exhibit.

Ethnic interaction in 1890 wasn’t always pretty, and that too is reflected in the exhibit. One of the less attractive European-immigrant artifacts is a ballot for the San Francisco-based Workingmen’s Party. This largely Irish organization ran its candidates on a anti-Chinese platform.

Some of the interactions are quite unexpected. One striking artifact from the late 19th Century discloses that a Navajo weaver chose to decorate her blanket or rug with stylized images of African American cowboys.

The exhibit will give each community about 125 square feet of display area. Between each ethnic display will be a recessed area (the staff calls them fiords) where docents will be able to gather a small group of school-age visitors out of the flow of traffic.

The exhibit’s multiculturalism extends to the docents as well. The Autry’s education department tapped docents from each of the cultural communities represented and asked them if they would share their family histories with visitors. As a result, volunteer Winnie Lu will tell how her grandfather practiced Chinese herbal medicine. And Jean Fernilius, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will show youngsters a replica of the autograph book her great-grandfather kept in prison where he was incarcerated for having more than one wife.

Turning to museum staff members for ethnic information has worked well for the museum in the past. When creating its Children’s Discovery Gallery in 1992, the museum decided to build the please-touch exhibit around the Mexican American ranching family of Mary Ann Ruelas, assistant director of programs.

The treasures that filled the Tucson townhouse of Ruelas’ grandparents have been painstakingly reproduced, down to the traditional paper cutouts, called papel picado, that hung on the walls. By involving its own ethnic expert, the museum was able to get feedback about the accuracy of the exhibit. Ruelas objected, for instance, when the family ranch house was shown with sections of the adobe exposed, unprotected by stucco and, thus, at risk of melting away in a heavy rain.

“That’s like showing your house with the windows broken,” Ruelas protested. She also pointed out that her family had lived in Arizona, not California, and so the exhibit’s simulation of an afternoon sky was repainted minus the Southland pinks and mauves.

Ruelas was a learner in the course of the project as well as a teacher. While sharing information with other family members, she discovered that some of her ancestors may have been conversos, Jews who had been pressured into converting to Catholicism by the Spanish Inquisition but secretly adhered to such Jewish practices as not mixing meat and dairy products at the same meal.

The Autry’s drive for multiculturalism is attracting a more diverse audience. Last year’s Juneteenth celebration drew 3,000 people, most of them African American. As education associate Lori Givens points out: “It brought a lot of people here who didn’t think there was anything here for them.”

Givens thinks African Americans and other minority visitors also are heartened when they learn that the Autry has ties with ethnic institutions such as the California Afro American Museum in Exposition Park.

“People feel a little safer that their story will be told responsibly,” says Givens.

The Spirit of Community gallery will open May 28, but it won’t be finished, says Duchemin. As the curator explains, it is his hope that the visitors who come to see how their ancestors struggled in the American West will become involved with the exhibit, which will change over time. The curator hopes that these ad-hoc ethnic experts will be quick to tell the staff what it got right and what it didn’t.

Duchemin also hopes that visitors will bring their own ethnic artifacts--also known as family treasures--to add to the display.


* What: Spirit of Community gallery at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum.

* Location: 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, next to the Los Angeles Zoo.

* Hours: Opens May 28. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays.

* Admission: $7 general, $5 seniors and students with ID, $3 children ages 2 through 12.

* Information: (213) 667-2000.