The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park is the creation of Hollywood cowboy-legend Gene Autry, who wanted to showcase the various heritages of the West, from Native North Americans to the depiction of Westerns in pop culture.
Just pause to think about that a moment: a museum showcasing everything from Native American art and artifacts to films about the Wild West. It’s an interesting and workable unifying thread, but one that results in an eclectic mix of exhibits that sometimes feels a bit odd.
In terms of presentation, the Autry Museum of the American West is impressive. Its permanent exhibition areas were designed by Walt Disney Imagineering (headquartered a few miles away in Glendale, California) and the polish is easy to see. Even if not everything within the Autry Museum appeals to you (and there’s a very good chance it won’t), it’s an interesting enough of a place to make it worthy of consideration…
Whether this all works as a cohesive collection of galleries is a personal matter. What’s undeniable is that the Autry Museum of the American West contains an extensive collection of cowboy memorabilia and genre film props. It also has a wide array of Western paintings and sculpture, Native North American pottery, beadwork, carvings, and other artifacts.
What’s most odd about the Autry Museum of the American West is its internal struggle. Some exhibits, like those about the portrayal of the West in Hollywood showcase a glamorized West that existed only in fiction.
Displays like this feel at odds with other more sober looks at the interwoven cultures of the West, the heritage of Native Americans, and the actual daily lives of those who came to the West.
The thing is, there’s honesty in both. Historically, the West was glamorized in 20th century film, television, and literature. The exhibits reflect this, but fail to offer much insight into how history was whitewashed.
To me, that seems like a critical mistake, as it makes the divide between the two ‘halves’ of the museum all the more pronounced.
You also get the sense that the Autry Museum is in a state of flux. As our collective perception of exploration and the exploitation continues to shift (Los Angeles is at the forefront of this), it’s entirely possible that the Autry Museum has shifted with it. At least, parts of the museum.
While we don’t have a history with the Autry Museum, I’d be curious to see how differently it looked a decade or two ago.
My guess is that there’s an increased emphasis on the multicultural nature of the American West, and exhibits highlighting this have gradually crept in, displacing those that romanticize the images of cowboys as gunslingers and notions of manifest destiny.
Let’s take a stroll through some of the exhibits in the Autry Museum…
While some of the museum’s art is impressive, highlights for me are many of the ‘traditional’ Western artifacts, like the fully-equipped chuck wagon, an 1855 mail stage coach, a mahogany bar re-created from Montana (and its own corporate sponsorship!), an array of rifles, and a collection of saddles.
These types of things appeal to me, personally. Sarah was less impressed with most of these displays, and found more to her liking in some of the religious and ecological displays.
“The Colt Revolver in the American West” is an interesting exhibition, boasting the largest collection of Colt handguns in the world. Some space is given to the history of the revolver in the American West, but more might be nice.
As it stands, this exhibit feels like an arsenal (one room is even in what’s designed to resemble a gun safe) without much context. This exhibit is likely to be a polarizing one for visitors.
The Autry’s “Journeys Gallery” is an interesting an engaging exhibit. It explores the people, technologies, and circumstances that shaped the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. A large stagecoach is the centerpiece, with plenty of other quasi-interactive elements.
Currently billed as a temporary exhibit, “Play!” is far and away the Autry’s most popular space. This area aimed at kids offers a timeline of toys and games across cultures and over time. Its connection to the American West is a tenuous one, but it’s still interesting.
This exhibit utilizes a timed entry system during busier times, and is the one space in the museum that is squarely targeted at kids. While fascinating, we would not recommend adults linger around to see this if the time entry system is being utilized. It’s not that good.
A giant atrium houses a sprawling 140′ mural by Guy Deel titled “Spirits of the West,” which runs along three of the four walls, and features key figures from the history of the West, putting the first Spanish missionaries alongside Clint Eastwood, reflecting the greater arch of the museum itself.
These are just a few of the many exhibits and highlights of the Autry. We also enjoyed (some of) the “Art of the West” exhibit, the “Cowboy Gallery,” “California Continued,” and other exhibits. You can read more about the current exhibits at the Autry here.
The Autry Museum’s hours are fairly limited as compared to other museums in Los Angeles, so be sure to check out current times before visiting. Admission is also fairly steep, but is free on the second Tuesday of every month. We think the admission price is worth it–there’s easily 2-3 hours worth of entertainment here.
In a way, the Autry Museum of the American West, wrinkles and all, is perfectly befitting of California. As Los Angeles strives to become the epitome of multiculturalism ‘wokeness’ it’s also home to Hollywood, which peddles heavily dramatized, idealized, and sanitized depictions of the West and post-Western genre violence. Personally, I find it interesting to analyze the museum in such terms. If you stumbled upon this post looking for a simple thumbs up/down on whether you should visit, all of this commentary probably borders on hyper-critical.
On the surface, there are also a variety of exhibits of varying quality, and at least a few of these will undoubtedly appeal to you, irrespective of your interests. In a way, the Autry Museum benefits from its fractured nature, as there’s truly something here for everyone–in what could otherwise be a niche-interest museum. While it’s not one of the elite museums in Los Angeles, it’s at the top of ‘tier two’ and definitely an attraction that’s worthy of consideration on a week-long trip to Southern California. If you have less time than that, you should probably skip Autry Museum unless there’s something specific here that piques your interest.
If you’re planning a trip, check out our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles or our California category of posts. For even more things to do, The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas is an exceptional resource, which is written by other locals. If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you done the Autry Museum of the American West? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Would you do it again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’? Was it worth your time and money? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!