The Autry National Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a thoughtful remodel that brings two galleries into the 21st century.
By Brenda Rees
You think redesigning your kitchen was a big undertaking? Was your living room remodel more complicated than you originally planned? Did options for updating your home office make your head spin?
Then consider what the folks at the Autry National Center had to contend with during their recent remodel of two galleries — one big, one small — in the Griffith Park Museum of the American West, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Autry officials had long wanted to make significant improvements to their galleries, many of which had become outdated; the opportunity came last year when trustee James R. Parks made a sizable donation that enabled them to finally kick those dreams into high gear.
With more than 150,000 people typically visiting the Autry each year, museum officials exhibiting its priceless art and countless artifacts didn’t want to settle for a simple high-tech update of the traditional gallery spaces; instead, they focused on imagining a richer museum experience, so guests could more easily understand the immense scope of stories of the American West.
That goal set the tone for the gallery remodels Autry officials consider artful yet functional, allowing many aspects of the Western experience to be explored holistically. “Just like when you are redesigning your kitchen, you first have to take a giant step back and say, ‘What’s not working?’ and ‘How can this be improved?’” says Patrick Fredrickson, associate design director, who helped shepherd the remodel from concept to completion.
The two spaces — the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art (housing the current exhibition Art of the West) named after the donor’s mother, and the smaller Gamble Firearms Gallery (part of the Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction Gallery) — first required numerous consultations with curators, programmers, conservators and even security personnel about the pros and cons of the previous layout, says Frederickson. That research guided him and his team in designing new galleries around themes and related collection pieces to enhance visitors’ experience. To that end, walls were removed, rooms were enlarged, items from other areas of the museum were repurposed, colors and textures were added and lighting was carefully crafted.
In the second-floor Parks Gallery, the changes represented a major break from traditional art gallery design. At just under 4,000 square feet, the space featured art arranged in strict chronological order when it housed the Romance Gallery. That “forced serpentine march” layout was the first thing that had to go, says Amy Scott, the visual arts curator. Scott says the Art of the West exhibition is designed to promote self-directed navigation…you go where you want to, not where you are pointed. Today’s visitors can choose among the gallery’s three themed areas (Religion and Ritual, Land and Landscape, Migration and Movement) as well as two revolving mini galleries. The new configuration is also a boon for programming, tour groups and other museum events, says Frederickson. “The new layout allowed the Land and Landscape area to house 40-plus guests and a speaker for a recent gallery talk,” he notes.
The three themed areas were inspired by the Autry’s massive collection, allowing related elements to be tied together in a coherent way. Classical oil paintings are placed alongside related ethnic tapestries and above photographs; large modern sculptures are positioned near ancient ceremonial artifacts and across from a video installation that projects onto the floor. This eclectic juxtaposition of items highlights the narrative and helps visitors “start a conversation about the cultural forces that shaped the idea and experience,” explains Scott, adding that the media mix has proven more inviting to families with younger children. “We wanted this space to be for all ages to explore, and we see a lot of families lingering in the area.”
Much of the design was shaped by requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Frederickson. Not only are the gallery’s walkways wide enough for wheelchairs, but the descriptive panels and typography were chosen for accessibility to all. “Our exhibits are slightly lower than what you would see at other museums,” he says, adding that his design team used a cheat sheet on the average heights of visitors on foot and in wheelchairs. (The latter level is 49 inches, by the way; Autry cases are about 33 inches high, lower than the 36 to 38 inches typical of art museums.)
Museum-goers often complain about feeling uninvolved with the display — the “don’t touch” and “keep your distance” mantra isn’t inviting, says Frederickson. Two strategies in the Art of the West exhibition address that. First, descriptive labels are placed in such a way that you can step back to see the item at a distance and still be able to read about it. Thus visitors are not forced into “doing that little dance, stepping back and forth between both,” says Frederickson. The other change safely brings the public closer to the object: Plexiglas cases allow guests to peruse art and artifacts from different angles, with no risk of damage.
Autry staff designed and built the modular cases in a variety of sizes, using plywood veneers, since oak can corrode art and artifacts. Lighting was another crucial issue for museum designers, who want to illuminate details but must protect the museum’s treasures by limiting light exposure. Objects are carefully monitored for light damage and slated for rotation. Existing halogen lights are used in the Art of the West exhibition, and in the Migration and Movement area, environmentally friendly LED lights are employed, since dimming them doesn’t change an object’s perceived color, explains Frederickson.
Lighting is especially critical in the smaller “jewel box” gallery currently showcasing Ansel Adams’ photography. The low ceiling enhances the intimate feel of the tiny space, drawing visitors even closer to the photographs. “It’s so much easier to control the lighting here,” says Frederickson. The space will house rotating displays of photography, oil paintings, sculptures and video installations.
Modular cases with low lighting illuminate the weaponry in the recently opened Gamble Firearms Gallery. The display of 33 historical firearms replaces a life-size diorama of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, which “lacked historical context,” says Jeffrey Richardson, curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms. “The gunfight story was so much more than presented; it was social, political, financial; not just good guys versus bad. But you never got that from the installation.”
A more professional and thoughtful exploration of firearms was made possible with patron George Gamble’s donation of 55 firearms and 25 related artifacts to the Autry two years ago. Twenty-three items from Gamble’s collection are currently on view. In light of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, Richardson said, it was paramount that the gallery not glorify guns but rather depict how “essential they were on the American frontier”; organizers accomplished that by arranging them by theme — hunting and trapping, the impact of technology on firearms, the conservation movement and the West in popular culture.
For its new gun gallery the museum opted for a straightforward, no-nonsense design. The dark steel-gray colors around the Plexiglas cases complement the multi-colored wood that visually unites the inner gallery with a space across a walkway once separated by a wall. The wood — repurposed from the museum’s former “Back Lot” movie installation — gives the gallery a rustic, cabin-like feel.
In an enlightening juxtaposition, Theodore Roosevelt’s custom-made revolver and carbine are placed alongside his personal holster, spurs and cartridge belt; nearby is a copy of Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), written by the president himself and illustrated by Frederic Remington. An original Remington painting featured in the book is also on display here.
Other aspects of guns that Richardson would like to see in the gallery include Native Americans’ use of firearms. “[Weaponry] is a very complex and compelling aspect of our history,” he says. “Our overall goal was how our resources can bring the subject to light.” Indeed, Autry officials say every change they made to the galleries reflected that same goal — telling the saga of the American West clearly and compellingly.
The Autry National Center is located at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission costs $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors and $4 for children ages three to 12; free for members and children under three. Call (323) 667-2000 or visit theautry.org