I ended my concluding contribution to the Journal of the Early Republic’s forum on David McCullough’s The Pioneers by proclaiming the series of scathing takedowns “a good start.” As I noted there, “books like McCullough’s usually don’t get reviewed in the Journal of the Early Republic,” but “they should.” For “now more than ever,” I warned, “we should be aware of the danger of wishtories built on alternative facts” and of the need to challenge fairy tales masquerading as serious history.
A starting point, but to where? In my piece for the JER, I did not address what I thought the next steps should be. Or I suppose I hinted at mine in my bio, where I announced myself “President and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West and Professor of History, Emeritus, at UCLA.” In truth, that titular designation was a little premature. Only on July 1, 2021, will I take the helm at the Autry Museum, having “separated” from UCLA the previous day. By the time some readers get to the JER forum, I may already regret the decision to leave the safe harbor that my position at UCLA afforded for the choppy waters that come with navigating a museum, especially one that ventures history into the public sea. I hope not, because I think the Autry is the place and the position from which I can best take my next steps.
I come by that optimism based on my knowledge of the Autry’s history, and what it affirms about the possibilities of public and popular history. When what was then known as the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage opened its doors in 1988, its mission was to celebrate the history and mythology of the American West. Its core galleries all carried the name “Spirit of,” with three of these designated “Discovery,” “Conquest,” and “Imagination.” In the original incarnation of each of these galleries, as their appellations suggest, the spirit of David McCullough’s The Pioneers would have been very much at home.
But the Autry’s West, unlike McCullough’s monochromatic and triumphalist account, has changed with the times. Over the last thirty years, the museum’s name underwent a number of alterations. In the first of these, “heritage” got dropped. Along the way, “Spirit of” vanished from the title of all galleries. “Discovery” disappeared entirely. “Conquest” morphed into “Journeys.” This fall, “Imagination” will be re-installed with a different set of artifacts, a fresh interpretive skein, and a new name: “Imagined Wests.” The plural form speaks to the particular gallery’s re-imagining. Where once (and once upon a time), frontier yarns in the vein of McCullough’s The Pioneers stood alone in shaping a singular mythic West, the new gallery brings together cultural creations from numerous, often conflicting points of view. Mirroring the changes in scholarly histories, the remaking of the gallery, and, more broadly, of the Autry reflects the impact that recent scholarship can have on public and popular interpretations. Just not on McCullough’s.[i]
I like to think that I played a significant role in sculpting some of these shifts at the Autry. Beginning in 2002 and for nearly a decade, I split my appointment between UCLA and the museum. As the executive director of the Autry’s Institute for the Study of the American West, I took as my mandate to import the best current scholarship into the Autry’s exhibitions, programs, and publications. In that pursuit, I installed the “convergence” of cultures as the principal lens through which the Autry viewed the West’s past and its connections to the present.
Still, as I ponder the prospective view from my new perch, I’m mindful of lessons learned from my previous attempts to build bridges between the academy and the museum and between scholarly and public histories. While I initially conceived my role at the Autry to be the bringer of scholars and scholarship from the academy to the museum, I soon discovered that good public history isn’t built on one-directional monologues. As Richard White has discerned, “in public history, the public gets to pose the questions.” To which I would add, and the answers emerge out of a dialogue between public historians and the public.[ii]
That’s a lesson I’ll take to my new position, and its one I’d encourage the editors of the Journal of the Early Republic to embrace the next time they put together a set of reviews of a book like McCullough’s. Or better still, when they assemble a special issue devoted to putting the public in the history of the Early Republic.
[i] I discuss the evolution of the Autry in greater detail in “From Romance to Convergence,” in The Art of the West: Selected Works from the Autry Museum, ed. Amy Scott (Norman, OK, 2018), vii–xii.
[ii] Richard White, “Posing the Question: What Makes Public History Public?,” in Western Lands, Western Histories: Essays on Public History in the American West, ed. Gregory E. Smoak (Salt Lake City, UT, 2021), quotation on 14. See also my essay, co-authored by Virginia Scharff, “Building Bridges,” in ibid., 170–83, 210–12.
9 June 2021
About the Author
Stephen Aron is President and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West.