Museums have to revamp periodically to stay relevant, embrace the latest technology, and draw visitors. The Autry Museum of the American West unveiled a massive renovation today, Oct. 9, which includes two new galleries, an innovative garden, and an immersive media room. The museum’s transformation, branded as “California Continued,” looks at state’s past with an eye toward the future, particularly with regard to the environment.
There are two related topics connect and pervade the newly revamped areas. They are traditional Native American ecological practices and how they be employed in present-day efforts to care for the California environment.
Native American baskets from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian (which became part of the Autry in 2003) permeate the exhibits and illustrate the diverse Indian usage and techniques. One display illustrates how Native Americans in different parts of the state used natural elements for baskets, such as stone, clay, shells, ceramics and various types of woven baskets. Interactive video panels allow visitors to drill down on types of baskets, materials used and other aspects to learn more.
Here are highlights of the four new Autry areas being introduced as ‘California Continued’:
- “Human Nature” – a new permanent exhibit – looks at four things that have shaped California life in parts of the state: Fire, Desert, Salmon, and Plants. The four sections show how generations of Native Americans took advantage of that element and how things have changed ecologically that impact it. For example, the Fire area shows how Indians used controlled burns for generations to mitigate the risk of massive wildfires. However, those burns are not done now and the fire threat has grown. The salmon section shows the impact dams and other manmade interference have had on the salmon in Northern California.
- “The Life and Work of Mabel McKay,” a exhibit expected to stay two years, is the first show the Autry has offered that is dedicated to one Native American woman’s life. A Northern Californian, McKay (1907–1993) was a widely respected Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo master basket weaver, traditional healer, and community advocate.A “doctoring” suitcase and several unusual baskets by McKay are in the exhibit, including one that features meadowlark and mallard feathers in the weaving. (A mirror lets visitors see the bottom).McKay’s tribe had dwindled to about 747 people when she was born; during her lifetime, a tribal resurgence expanded the population to more than 6,500 people by 2010. She liked teaching about Pomo traditions, medicinal use for plants, and basketry. Unfortunately, she did not teach others of remaining family her native tongue, which sadly died with her.
- The “Human Nature Garden” offers outdoor space for relaxation among some 60 native plants. The 7,000-square-foot space features plenty of seating areas to enjoy the plants. Garden guides identify the plants and how they are used medicinally, as food, and in creating items. Special “medicine cabinet” displays highlight common ailments and what plant matter the Indians (or even big Pharma) used for remedies. For example, willow bark was used as a headache cure and the salicylic acid in it is still the active ingredient used in aspirin.
- “California Road Trip” is a 6-hour long dual-projection film featuring six different road trips through scenic aspects of the state. It might not be engrossing to look at a camp fire for several minutes (each location gets about 10 minutes). However, the lovely undulating wood bench developed for viewers makes a nice resting spot between museum exhibits. More interesting sights include idyllic ocean bluffs along the central coastline, starry skies in Joshua Tree, giant California Redwoods, and beautiful views of Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the state (and the 48 contiguous states).
When the Autry opened, it relied heavily on the late Gene Autry’s reputation as a singing cowboy. Now, the museum’s mission is to tell stories of the American West and showcase all aspects of its diversity, past and future. This is exemplified by the Autry transformation shown in “California Continued,” and their efforts to take a fresh look at the area.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Autry Museum: The Autry Presents California Continued
Photos by Dyanne Weiss