Autry president W. Richard West Jr. embodies American complexity

W. (Walter) Richard West Jr., the new president and CEO of the Autry National Center, believes that a key job of this country’s museums is to interpret the complexity of the American heritage, and he embodies this mission both in his work and in his personal background.

West spoke to a reporter as the opening of the museum’s massive exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” approached, the Autry’s first major project to open since his arrival last December.

The founding director for two decades of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., West had formally “retired” before being convinced to lead the Autry, whose Western focus originated with the late cowboy film actor, Gene Autry, and Autry’s wife, Jackie. West’s background in American Indian culture adds new depth to a collection that now houses the former Southwest Museum’s holdings.

While West brings extensive museum experience, and a depth of knowledge of American Indian culture to his new position, he also has a special appreciation for the Jewish contribution to this city and country, rooted both in his own work and outlook.

[Related: How the Jews changed Los Angeles]

Born in in 1943 in San Bernardino, but raised in Muskogee, Okla., West is the son of a master Cheyenne painter, the late Walter Richard West Sr. His mother, Maribelle McCrea West, the daughter of missionaries, was of Scottish-American Protestant descent.

During his law career in Washington, D.C., West identified closely with his father’s ethnic and cultural heritage, representing numerous American Indian tribes.

He also received significant insight into the Jewish tribal culture while working as an attorney and partner in the Washington office of the predominantly Jewish law form of Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson, and he remembers the association warmly.

“I attended my first seder in 1973,” West recalled during an interview in his Autry office. “The evening held a special resonance for me, and I loved it.”

He also learned about the finer distinctions within the Jewish community, and that it shared one common concern with his own Cheyenne tribe. “Both worry about their children intermarrying,” he observed.

Drawing on his own personal and professional experiences, West spoke of his formula for a museum’s primary mission.

“An American museum, including the Autry, must serve as a touchpoint between the country’s various cultures and explore the points of engagement among them,” he said. “That’s not how histories are usually told.”

Putting it another way, West spoke of lateral or horizontal connections between different cultures and ethnicities through “crosshatching” and “stitching together” different communities through economic, political and civic ties.

Beyond that, West views museums as “civic centers for discussions” and “safe places for unsafe ideas.”

A graduate of the University of Redlands, Harvard and Stanford Law School, West remains trim and fit at 70. He is married to Mary Beth Braden West, formerly with the U.S. State Department.

The couple has two adult children, Amy, a clinical psychologist and medical school professor, and Ben, a screenwriter.

A lesson From Cyrus

Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight-line progression — the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the view, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.

I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.

That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last month — the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the intention of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.

The cylinder proclaims:

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus — to the fury of the lord of the gods — had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord. … I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries … every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds. … I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.

Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.

His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

The Cylinder was only rediscovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.

Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long — especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus, which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend toward justice again is anyone’s guess.

The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upward. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.

The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, to the Getty Villa, later this year (Oct. 2- Dec. 2). This op-ed was adapted from the blog The Wide Angle,