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American History Comes to Life at the Autry Museum


THE AUTRY MUSEUM of the American West located in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park offers thought provoking online and onsite resources which brings history to life. Courtesy photos provided by Autry Museum of the American West.


By Laurie Hanson • May 11, 2021

The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park brings the past to life with the vision of making history relevant in today’s tumultuous times.

The whole idea of the museum being alive among people is the aspiration and accomplishment that President and CEO W. Richard West, Jr., has held throughout his nearly 10-year tenure. Though retiring at the end of June, he still clearly sees this as central to the museum’s future.

“My guiding philosophy is that a museum should serve as a public forum, a civic space where people from diverse communities of interest gather to discuss important and even sometimes controversial issues—not just a house of collections and static objects,” said West, who also is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma.

“That aspiration has been crystal clear to me during this past year and a half of great social turbulence and change,” he added.

Educating and bringing people together is at the heart of what the Autry Museum does best. Whether it is by experiencing exhibits up close in person now or through online distance learning, they strive to inspire a shared future for us all.

“The Autry’s Distance Learning website features educational resources in a variety of different learning modalities,” said Director of Education Sarah Wilson. “[We offer] self-paced lessons, digital gallery tours, live webinars, educational videos, and fun activities. Each resource includes relevant state standards, links to associated education resources, teaching tips for different learning environments and levels of interaction, fillable student response sheets, and Spanish translations.”

Historically relevant today is one of their most popular self-paced lessons, Civil Rights for African Americans in Early California. In this lesson intended for high school students, the discriminatory policies toward African Americans in early California (1849-1865) and how African Americans fought against those policies is covered.

Another popular self-paced lesson, Who Lives in the American West? provides a comprehensive geographic background of the western part of our country complete with mapping activities and analysis for grades K – 5. Feedback on the self-paced lessons has been positive including how students liked learning in independent ways, and how the lessons are user friendly, according to Wilson.

As far as digital tours, their most popular is the Ethnobotanical Garden Digital Tour viewed some 5,881 times. It explores the Autry’s garden and celebrates the importance of California’s native plants for students of all ages. It is also available in video format as well.

The Autry Museum’s most popular live, facilitated webinar is the Animals of the American West Webinar. Facilitated by museum teachers, webinars are designed to be interactive through chats and polls while the students analyze objects from the Autry’s collection. This particular webinar is intended for students grades 3-6. Feedback on it has been positive with viewers feeling part of it and liking how well-organized it was, with many enjoying interaction with the instructor, according to Wilson.

“Some of our lessons are also included in the new Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, which is incredibly exciting,” added Wilson. “It is a wonderful, national tool for classroom teachers looking to incorporate civics learning and engagement into their already-existing curriculum.”

In terms of exhibitions, two of their most current and popular ones which patrons can check out in person or online are When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California and What’s Her Story: Women in the Archives.

Featuring contemporary art by the First Californians and other Native American Indian artists is When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, an exhibit which spans five decades with strong ties to the state. It showcases more than 65 works of art which transcends borders and utilize cultural resistance to renew and heal communities. This exhibit was conceived by and is dedicated to Nomtipom Wintu artist Frank LaPena (1936-2019), a renowned artist, writer, curator, poet, traditionalist, and professor at Sacramento State University for 40 years. It was organized by the Crocker Museum in Sacramento with support from the United Auburn Indian Community and is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, according to www.theautry.org.

Part of Autry exhibition, When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, “History of California Indians,” (c. 1990) hand-colored lithographs, collection of the Artist Frank LaPena.


In honor of the 100th anniversary of women garnishing the right to vote, What’s Her Story: Women in the Archives celebrates women’s history as found in the Autry Museum’s collections. Their compelling stories are preserved as a legacy given in their own voice during the 20th to the 21st centuries. Some are about the Assistance League of Los Angeles, Caroline Boeing Poole, Gladys Knight Harris, the Native Voices theatre ensemble, and stories of the Women’s March movement, according to www.theautry.org.

The Autry Museum of the American West was established in 1988 by Jackie and Gene Autry and Joanne and Monte Hale. Named after co-founder, actor, and businessman Gene Autry, it offers a wide variety of exhibitions and programs which include lectures, film, theater, festivals, family events, and music while conducting scholarly research and educational outreach.

The museum has two sites in Los Angeles which comprehensively explore the cultures of the American West. Normally, the museums attract nearly 150,000 visitors a year. Given the coronavirus pandemic, times have been tough for the nonprofit which closed its doors in March 2020, just reopening a year later.

“As with most cultural institutions, COVID-19 has been very tough on museums,” said Director of Communications and Marketing Chris Dzialo. “Thanks to the leadership of our president, Rick West, as well as the leadership and generosity of our Board of Trustees, the Autry was lucky to fare a bit better than most.”

They survived by making what Dzialo calls a “very quick pivot,” to the digital by encouraging everyone across all aspects of the Autry Museum to bring as much as they could online. This meant creating virtual tours of several exhibitions including their popular Masters of the American West Art Exhibition and Sale.

“Our mission is to tell the diverse stories of the American West, and the job of my team is to get those stories in front of as many people as possible,” said Dzialo who has been with the Autry Museum since June 2017. “It is a gift and incredibly rewarding work to promote these important and relevant cultural moments and activations to wider and wider audiences.”

Having both an online and onsite presence that continues to serve the greater Los Angeles community is the vision President and CEO W. Richard West, Jr., holds long term for the Autry Museum even after his tenure ends. He said, “More selfishly, I cannot wait just to be a ‘civilian’ myself at the museum, able to simply revel in Autry exhibitions and programs for the sheer pleasure of the experience as a visitor.” It is his hope that others will also revel in the museum bringing history to life open for discussion even if the world finds itself in turbulent times again.

The Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., located at 4700 Western Heritage Way in Los Angeles. Their Historic Southwest Museum Mt. Washington Campus is currently closed until further notice. The museum is a nonprofit and welcomes individuals, businesses, and corporate donors through membership. For more information, please visit www.theautry.org.

Bertha Parker Cody at Southwest Museum expedition, 1929. Photograph by Mark Raymond Harrington. Part of the Autry exhibition, What’s Her Story: Women in the Archives.