The Autry Museum: Mass Incarceration in the American West

Above: Thomas Blackshear II, “Wild West Show,” oil on canvas, 31 x 41 in. James R. Parks Trustees’ Purchase Award

The West is not a time period that begins and ends at a specific point in history; rather the West is a place in which Americans disrupted indigenous time and space through industrialization and war to establish towns and cities thousands of miles away from the federal government. Following the American Civil War, historians have noted that Americans continued to move out West with the assistance of the federal government, finalizing the decimation of many indigenous communities and landscapes, to establish cities. 

Buffalo Bill’s minstrel performances portrayed the West as a wild, untamed place, while others, like Gloria Anzaldúa have proven that the West is a contested border; and yet the West is a place in constant movement, changing and expanding to reflect the experiences of diverse people that formed distinct communities and identity. As historian Patricia Limerick suggests, the West is an urban space, an idea that challenges our understanding that this landscape was only farming, ranching and cowboys. Romanticized accounts of the West have dominated the cinema, and has created assumptions and stereotypes about the indigenous, Black, Chinese, European immigrant, and Latino communities in the West in early television shows and movies.

As artist Thomas Blackshear II demonstrates in his piece on re-imagining the wild west show, the museum remains inclusive to indigenous artists and their artwork. Blackshear was a featured artist in the 2019 Master’s program at the museum. In December 2019, the museum appointed Joe D. Horse Capture and Tyree A. Boyd-Pates to the curatorial team.

Docents are available to speak with the public about the various exhibits at the Autry Museum. The Autry Education Department.

Founded in 1988 by Gene Autry, the Autry museum is nestled in Griffith Park, CA, and presents a diverse range of exhibitions and public programs, and performs scholarship, research, and educational outreach. In 2013, the museum modernized the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art and the Gamble Firearms Gallery in its main building. The annual Master’s of the American West Exhibition and Sale is the museum’s premiere event to fund educational opportunities and outreach. Docents are on hand to lead individual and group tours about the various exhibits, and artifacts. More information about the Autry museum can be found at

The “Change-Makers” exhibit opened in Fall 2019 at the JFK Memorial Library at Cal State University Los Angeles. The exhibit was a collaboration between students in Dr. Dennis’s history course and the Autry Museum.

As a public historian that teaches for the department of history at Cal State University, Los Angeles I have been fortunate with my association to the Gene Autry museum to curate several projects with my classes including, I Am The West, Too! Documenting Community and Identity in the 21st Century, (2018) and Change-Makers: Past and Present in Western History, (2019). I continue to be committed to a collaborative active-learning construct has led me to engage undergraduate students in diverse activities and projects that move beyond the lectern and out of the classroom. The education department at the museum and I collaborated to coordinate several field-trips to the museum for lower and upper-division courses, and created an innovative “Changemakers,” assignments that has undergraduate students learn more about the diverse experiences of people in the West. As a mother, I would take my son Cinque to the museum on a weekly basis to explore the numerous exhibitions and interactive exhibits; Cinque learned to walk at museum. I am grateful that my last class field-trip for Cal State University Los Angeles students occurred right before the Autry museum temporarily closed to the public. This article seeks to engage the audience with a virtual tour of an impactful exhibition about mass incarceration.

How many of us have seen an exhibit on mass incarceration? Do we think about incarceration in the American west? The 1970s marked a pivotal point in mass incarceration across the nation, as prison systems moved from rehabilitative measures to more punitive policies. As noted by mass incarceration scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, California began the largest prison building project in the nation during the 1970s. Currently, there are thirty-five adult prisons in the state of California, and from 1982-2000, the state’s prison population increased by 500%, and in 2016, the state spent approximately $64,000 per prisoner per year. Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s City of Inmates, traces the development of human cages since 1850 statehood, and argues that the city of Los Angeles is a city of conquest.

Exhibit. Behind Bars: Incarceration in the West

At the Autry museum, one small yet impactful exhibit, Behind Bars, a series of photographs of incarcerated men in the California prison system is part of the larger effort by museums to educate the public. According to the Autry press release in January 2020, the exhibit is “located in the Autry’s Law and Order gallery, the exhibit explores the experiences and creative work of Westerners imprisoned under various circumstances.”

Pep William’s photographs of incarcerated men coupled with research by curator Josh Garrett-Davis make an intentional exhibit that is designed to move beyond the traditional understanding of the history of the West; to make personal and available the stories and experiences of men incarcerated behind bars.

For nearly two years, Pep Williams collaborated with the Autry museum to curate one of the first permanent exhibits on mass incarceration in a museum. In 2017, Pep was granted access to photograph inmates in Chuckawalla and Ironwood State Prisons in Blythe, California. His photographs capture the dignity and humanity of incarcerated people, and dispels myths about their experiences. Pep recorded a video about his work in the state prisons and it is available for visitors to listen to at the exhibit. Josh visited my urban Los Angeles course to speak about his work with Pep Williams, teaching in a prison back East, and curating an exhibit on mass incarceration.

Exhibit, Behind Bars: Incarceration in the West

Quote by Pep Williams:

Many things surprised me, but one was the brotherhood you felt inside…”

The Behind Bars exhibition resonated with audiences and my students, as many, including myself have incarcerated and formerly incarcerated family members. The work of incarcerated people is titled “Prison Folk Art” and quotes “People live in prison. They do not live well, but live they do. They make spaces for themselves, decorate what they can, define as private the tiny areas they can manage to control.” This exhibit is important to understanding the impact of mass incarceration in the contemporary era and the landscape on which the system was built. During his visit to history my course, Josh talked about the need as a historian to address the scholarship about mass incarceration and its’ impact on communities. The Autry Museum remains at the forefront of innovative exhibits and programs for the public that highlight the diversity of lived experiences in the West.

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Dawn A. Dennis

As a public historian teaching for the department of history at Cal State University, Los Angeles, my work demonstrates my commitment to public history practice in archival studies and curatorship. I am an innovative educator and intentional leader that creates and collaborates to reach a larger audience. I have written about a myriad of topics in history, and document the learning and preservation of history. Current projects include processing a series in the Mervyn Dymally collection, curating an online exhibit in Spring 2020, and collaborating with institutions on public history projects. I have been fortunate to collaborate with institutions and museums. I curated an exhibition, "I Am the West," at the Autry in January 2019. My current exhibit, "Change-Makers: Past and Present in Western History," opened on 21 November 2019 at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library at Cal State University, Los Angeles. I recently published a collaborative article on teaching pedagogy; “Breaking the University Myth: Deepening Student Engagement through Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Creative Practice,” Diálogo, Volume 21, Issue 2. I am a Reader at the Munger Research Center, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.