Exhibits proceed in the midst of renovation and expansion.
The ever-expanding Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles—which comprises the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of the American West and the Institute for the Study of the American West—continues to celebrate and explore both the Old and New West. For instance, this fall at the Autry’s Griffin Park Campus, the Museum of the American West presents an exhibition from the Southwest Museum’s vast American Indian basketry collection. Basket weaving remains an artistic craft common to virtually all tribes. The Southwest Museum’s “unparalleled basket collections,” as Interim Executive Director Steven Karr terms them, includes more than 13,500 baskets from across North America. Weavers made some baskets for everyday use and others for ceremonies, as gifts or for the tourist trade of the 1920s and 1930s. Included in the upcoming exhibit are baskets made by numerous California tribes, including the Pomos, Hupas and Cahuillas.
In 2010 the larger center (often referred to as “the Autry”) is scheduled to begin a $100 million expansion project, slated for completion in 2013. The project will enable the Autry to better preserve and showcase its collections, particularly the rare native objects and artifacts in storage at the Southwest Museum on the Autry’s Mount Washington Campus. That collection will move to renovated space at the Griffith Park Campus, say Autry officials. Once renovations are complete at the Southwest Museum, around 2011, it will reopen as the Southwest Museum Education and Cultural Center.
The Southwest Museum was the brainchild of Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859– 1928), a historian with an abiding interest in the Southwest who served as founding city editor of The Los Angeles Times. His stated mission was to create “a great, characteristic Southern California museum.” In 1907, with community support and financial donations, he chartered the city’s first “free public museum of science, history and art.” The Southwest Museum also exhibited Asian and European art when it opened in 1914, but in the 1920s narrowed its focus to the cultural history and prehistory of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It has become a leader in Southwest archaeological research.
The Museum of the American West has a shorter but still interesting history. Cofounded in 1988 by Gene and Jackie Autry and Monte and Joanne Hale, the space was formerly known as the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Autry wanted to give something back to the Los Angeles community that had been so supportive of his acting and singing, and the project was the realization of his dream “to build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.” It has long been the place to browse items relating to both the real West (the Spanish/Mexican period, Western saddles, firearms, etc.) and the “reel” West (Autry and Hollywood memorabilia), as well as Western art. Indian artifacts, of course, were always a big part of Autry’s collection, and the expanded center will be the best place to see Indian artifacts west of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Visitors are as impressed with the Autry’s moccasin collection as with its Indian baskets. A sampling: 1850s Arapaho deerskin moccasins adorned with colored beads; unusual 1890s Assiniboine moccasins with externally sewn seams; quilled Crow and Blackfoot moccasins with intricate diamond designs; Comanche girl’s moccasins with beads and silver studs; and a Sioux boy’s ceremonial dance moccasins from the late 1890s.
The collection also boasts nearly 800 Hopi kachina (sometimes katcina) dolls, dating from the 1890s to the 1950s. Kachinas traditionally represent the spirit messengers who deliver the prayers of the Hopi people. The collection includes the late 1890s doll Hahai’wuhti, the grandmother of all kachinas, given to all Hopi children at birth; Honankatsina, a circa 1900 badger representing the medicinal culture; and Qömuvho’te, a messenger to the rain spirits.
Preservation efforts at the Southwest Museum will remain a top priority, assures Autry President John Gray. “Once everything is completed,” he adds, “seeing these collections will be an amazing experience.” www.autrynationalcenter.org or call 323-667-2000.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.