Retelling the American West in the Museum

by: Ellen C. Caldwell
for JSTOR Daily

The Autry Museum of the American West opens its annual exhibit Masters of the American West this month. Named after Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry, the Autry Museum has worked hard to combat stereotypes and ideological, even propagandistic, depictions of the West. In her article “No More Heroes: Western History in Public Places,” historian Marsha Weisiger explores the ways in which museums have begun to embrace and reflect a newer and more multifaceted, multicultural approach to reconsidering the public history of the American West.

The “old western history,” as Weisiger terms it, is one of great mythology and myth-making — and, in her words, “those myths had consequences.” Weisiger explores the dangers of older Western mythologies and histories that do not tell truths of American expansion. She notes that although the newer “critical stance” of western history is now “de rigeur among historians of the American West,” she asks “how well has that been translated into forms that engage the public?”

Weisiger notes that this newer narrative has not yet “infiltrated cable television,” and one look at the reinforced cowboy-and-Indian mythology that recent shows like Westworld and The Lone Ranger confirm, certainly speak to her point. But, she argues that much could be done to inform the greater public if educators continue to focus on “producing sophisticated interpreters of the American West.”

A number of museums have, in fact, taken more nuanced approaches to revamping and retelling American history. Weisiger highlights a number of such shows, including the Oakland Museum of California’s Coming to California gallery theme…

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