Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Museum as More than Narrative

“Telling the Stories of the American West:  The New Frontiers of Narrative” was the title of W. Richard West, Jr.’s  lecture, currently President and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, in Los Angeles.  He was giving the final talk in a series titled “Exploring Narrative” presented in a collaboration between the School for Advanced Research and the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.



Rick West, as he is known, has a degree in American History from Harvard and graduated from Stanford Law School.  The first 20 years of his career were spent as a Washington lawyer at the prestigious law firm, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and then the Indian owned law firm in Albuquerque, Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C.  Many of his clients were the Indian Tribes.  He is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne.

I guess it should be no surprise that Rick West was chosen to be the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C. where he spent almost 20 years.  His law partner Kevin Gover took his place there as director.  At the age of 69 Rick West decided that rather than retire to Santa Fe, as he had said he would, he was going to take the reins at the Autry Museum.  It was founded in 1988 by the famous singing cowboy of Radio, TV and film fame, Orvon Grover Autry better known as Gene Autry (1907-1998).  The institution started with a large collection of Western Art and memorabilia and a mission to tell the story of the American West.


Having visited and lived in the Southwest for sometime now I can testify first hand that it is quite a different world from what we experienced back East.  The background, lifestyle and the thinking is different.  If we were in Europe it would be like comparing Ireland and Spain!  Therefore, it is a story that needs to be told.  We tell stories not just to educate the visitor but also those living their lives in that environment.  I always think of Winston Churchill quoting George Santayana, (in The Life of Reason, 1905) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  First we need to learn it!

Though Native Americans have obviously lived everywhere in what we now call the United States a great part of their more recent history is part of the story of the American West.   Their history has been an oral one and art was just a part of life, not a course you took at school but rather something you learned from your family.  Therefore, the concept of telling a story through art in a museum context is quite new for them.  In the past and in some places still today Native American Art is used ethnographically, in order to learn about a culture.  As the Indians have gained their own voice in the Anglo world they are eager to express their ideas themselves and not filtered through the Anglo academic.

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)

Viewed from the outside, NMAI was a political exercise where a multitude of tribal constituencies were asked to tell their history in their own way through their art.  As a result we did not get an art museum but another ethnographic and history museum telling many different Indian stories from the Native perspective.   In his talk Rick West made the point that this was the New Way, that the Old Way of curating by scholars was no longer valid and I believe he totally missed the point.  There can be little question that the Native Americans have to have their own voice and views heard and seen but that does not automatically invalidate art history and connoisseurship.  What about the American and European scholars of Islamic art, are they to now be totally discredited?  One wants to hear a multitude of voices when dealing with art.

At the Autry, Rick West said he is listening to all the voices and giving them all a chance to tell their stories.  That is as it should be, but again, it is one sided.  West seems to be only interested in telling stories, i.e. narrative, leaving out the beauty of the creations of a culture, or at best calling it incidental to the story. As said there is room for both and it is important that both be expressed.  It is probably a good thing to have both kinds of museums for art and for history.  While one constituency may be interested in the use and meaning of objects that can be supplied by current participants another may be drawn to the culture  through the esthetic quality of its creations.  

Rick West told us that there is authority outside the museum and that is absolutely true and every object tells a story but a work of art does so much more and it helps to have someone trained in the vocabulary of art to interpret it.