Cowboys and Indians Reconsidered: The Mythic West, Lassoed In by Reality

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

LOS ANGELES — Breakaway bottles used as props in fake saloon fights, posters for grade-B movies, a Hopalong Cassidy board game, Annie Oakley’s pistols, Gary Cooper’s toupee and a diorama of the O.K. Corral shootout: this is what you might expect to find in a museum founded by America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry.

And here, at the Museum of the American West (formerly the Autry Museum of Western Heritage) in Griffith Park, nostalgic film buffs and aficionados of cowboy culture will find it all, much of it associated with an entertainer whose reputation was made with a guitar and a saddle, but whose greatest hit was a 1949 rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that sold more than 30 million copies.

That is why it seemed so bizarre when, in 2003, the Autry Museum, with its $100 million endowment, absorbed the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, with its neglected world-class collection of 250,000 objects associated with once-flourishing tribes. This takeover caused much consternation. It wasn’t just the old cowboy-versus-Indian battle recurring in modern commercial form. It was the triumph of the phony cinematic West over its authentic past, with Hollywood’s stage sets winning out over relics so neglected through the decades that many had been assaulted by mold, mildew and insect infestation.

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