Last month I was in Indianapolis for a conference, and I had the opportunity to join a tour at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Now, I’ve been to the Eiteljorg in the past, and enjoyed my time there; but this particular visit was my favorite. One of their current exhibits, The Reel West, is all about the Hollywood Western. Full of artifacts (like costumes and toys, posters, stills from numerous features, and even a guitar that once belonged to Gene Autry), the exhibit is a real treat for fans and connoisseurs alike.
Curated by Johanna M. Blume, the exhibit explores the ways in which the Western has and still does impact how we see the world. It’s a look into the way that many Western films revolve around issues of morality, diversity, and what it means to be American. It recognizes the power of Western iconography, particularly when it comes to costumes, like the white and black hats of heroes and villains (those worn by recognizable Western stars or stars in recognizable roles abound in this exhibit—Tom Mix, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, and Hailee Steinfeld to name only a few) and the easily identifiable Lone Ranger costume (mask and gun belt included). Being able to join a tour of the exhibit truly made this experience a great one; in fact, Blume gave us all kinds of fun facts, like how many people are surprised to discover the Lone Ranger’s shirt, which looked white on screen, is actually blue! Or, that when working with studio archives to obtain film props, you may just end up with a pair of long johns (I won’t give away whose, but I can tell you they’re from a 1969 classic)! The exhibit even ends, or at least it did so when I walked through it, with the iconic image of a cowboy strolling into the sunset.
Some of my favorite things were the poster and robot head (see the Indy Star‘s article about the exhibit for an image of this prop) from Autry’s Phantom Empire (1935), an early example of the sci-fi Western; Gail Davis’ Annie Oakley costume; the mini-theater featuring trailers from a handful of famous Westerns (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Django Unchained, for instance); and one particularly striking image from the 1930s of a group of children in their cowboy outfits.
Of course, I’ve only mentioned a handful of the objects to be seen in this fascinating exhibit. There’s much more to be seen if you visit the Eiteljorg yourself–and I think you should. The exhibit’s curators have collected images and objects from numerous archives, museums, and production studios across America; and as a fan and scholar of the Western genre I, for one, am happy to have such a resource so close to home.
If this semester’s The Wide, Wide West film series sparked your interest in the Western genre, or if you’ve been a fan for years, you should see The Reel West soon. The exhibit is open until February 3, 2019.
For more information regarding the Eiteljorg’s The Reel West exhibit and its related programming see the following piece featured on the museum’s website. You can also follow the Eiteljorg on Twitter here.
A PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Katherine studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been fascinated with film since she could remember.