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Autry veteran now rides herd on Smithsonian's American History museum

Gray oversees 3 million artifacts, including this Consestoga wagon
Gray oversees 3 million artifacts, including this Consestoga wagon

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Los Angeles continues to provide the nation’s capital with top talent at arts institutions - Arvind Manocha left the LA Phil for Wolftrap; Richard Koshalek left the Art Center College of Design for the Hirshhorn. And a veteran of the Autry National Center now oversees one of the gems on the National Mall.
John Gray wanders the new food exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, conducting his own field poll. He asks visitors from Switzerland and South Korea standing near the perfectly reconstructed kitchen of Julia Child if they know who she is. "A cook? Yes?" they respond, recalling the 2009 film "Julie and Julia."  Gray, who’s been the museum’s new director for about a year now, is delighted. He calls the exhibit “classic Smithsonian” -- helping foreign visitors to understand America. Gray says if there was ever an expression of our culture and how to understand us, "it’s through food. And Julia personifies that because she made French cooking American!"

Gray thought he was going to retire in 2009, after more than a decade leading the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park. He moved to a farm in New Mexico, enrolled in grad school, and then got a call out of the blue from a headhunter. He barely hesitated. "Could there be a better job than the director of the National Museum of American History?"
Gray says the Autry taught him how to make American history accessible, relevant, and interesting to the widest possible audience. Like the Autry, he says the Smithsonian tells "the most inclusive story - complicated, dramatic, contested – we tell all those stories here, which is really one national story."
The big difference between the two museums is scale. The Autry curates 750 thousand objects; the Smithsonian cares for more than 3 million items -- everything from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to full scale trains. The Autry hosts about a hundred fifty thousand visitors a year; five million people crowd the American History Museum. Giving large crowds a good experience is a challenge.

Gray notes that the Smithsonian offers living history programs for visitors.  Over near the actual Greensboro lunch counter that was the focus of a key anti-segregation chapter in the 1960s, a young woman dressed in period attire coaches a crowd in the fine points of non-violent protest and teaches them a civil rights anthem.
Space has been a challenge for both institutions. The Smithsonian is in the middle of a 37-million dollar renovation of the west wing. Fundraising is underway to remodel the other half of the museum. Gray’s no stranger to construction projects. His plans for a 175-million dollar expansion at the Autry was dropped four years ago after LA City officials insisted the Griffith Park institution keep the historic but dilapidated Southwest Museum building functioning as a museum. Gray says the cost of getting that building in shape would be 40-million dollars. Supporters of the Southwest and the Autry have been fighting ever since.
Gray gives a nod to the political fights taking place here in Washington at the other end of the National Mall, saying folks in Congress could learn something from their own history as they tackle the issues of the day. He says the discussion over scale of government has been going on "since the nation was founded." Issues like taxation - the reason the nation was founded - isn't new. Gray says "understanding our history will give us much greater comfort and direction about the future."
John Gray says he’s brushed up on history himself since moving to Washington, taking road trips to east coast battlefields and historic sites, saying we also learn our history through place.