For as long as movies have been made, the heroes, villains and panoramic settings of the American West have fascinated viewers of all ages.

The mysterious stranger rides into town to do battle with the bad guys at high noon. Characters ride across the forlorn deserts and through jagged snow-capped mountains.

Cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and bandits, man vs. nature: all have come together to forge one the most distinctive cultural art forms.

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“There’s a fascination of the West, simultaneously as being very familiar and very exotic for a lot of people,” said Johanna Blume, associate curator of Western art, history and culture at the Eiteljorg Museum. “The narrative of Western expansion is intertwined in our cultural psyche. But for a lot of people who have never been out West, there’s still this distance from it, which makes it this fantastical thing you can tell stories about.”

The Western’s role in shaping popular culture and Americans’ perceptions of themselves is the focus of “The Reel West,” a new exhibition now on display at the Eiteljorg.

To tell the story, curators have brought together an impressive array of movie props, including the iconic mask and costume of the Lone Ranger and hats worn by Clint Eastwood in classics such as “Rawhide” and “The Pale Rider.” Art from the Eiteljorg’s own collection will buttress the themes and images normally seen in the movies.

By examining the significance of Westerns, organizers intend to explore diversity, morality, and identity that has forged around the genre.

“This very specific genre has much broader application to how we think of ourselves and how we talk about American culture and present ourselves to the greater world,” Blume said.

“The Reel West” was envisioned as a way to unite the worlds of film and Western art. But as organizers played with the idea and narrowed it down to a more focused concept, they decided to tell the story of how Westerns have become cultural titans for more than a century.

Morality is at the heart of most Westerns; they are stories about good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, Blume said. How that conflict has been portrayed and has evolved is well represented in the exhibition.

At the same time, “The Reel West” also looks at diversity and representation of different people in the genre. Though the West is one of the most culturally expansive areas in the U.S., and has been for centuries, movies often only present a limited perspective.

“The West has always been a very diverse place; ethnically, racially, gender and class. But Western film has always depicted that,” Blume said. “We’re looking at the representations of people and how that’s changed over time. We wanted to trace those changes.”

Working with their own collection as well as collectors, other museums and film studios, the exhibit helps lead people to think more deeply about the Western genre.

People will be able to see the costume worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Legend of Zorro,” and the outfit worn by breakout star Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of “True Grit.”

The Western hat — the overwhelming symbol of the genre — is prominently featured. Hats worn by the likes of John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in classic Westerns will be paired with those used in more modern productions and worn by actors such as Sam Elliott and Jamie Foxx.

A small movie theater will show additional clips from well-known Western movies. Interactive technology will allow people to play on touchscreens to watch movie clips and dive deeper into the ideas presented in the exhibition, Blume said.

“It’s a way for people to look at how different films fit into these themes that we’re looking at,” she said. “You can look at examples side-by-side, so you can see that progression.”

“The Reel West” runs through Feb. 3, 2019. To go with the physical exhibition itself, organizers have put together a slate of special events throughout the coming year.

Experts on Western films will offer the experience in the genre with special presentations. Cathy Smith, the costume designer for “Dances with Wolves,” film scholar Sue Matheson and Emmy award-winning writer Kirk Ellis of “Into the West” also will make appearances at the museum between now and April 7.

A silent-film double feature accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Western movie screenings also will be scheduled.

“One of our big goals is that people come out of the exhibit and want to check out more Westerns. Maybe we can pique some interest and get them to explore more,” Blume said. “And for people who are already fans, we can open their minds to some examples of Westerns they hadn’t considered to explore before.”

At a glance

The Reel West

What: An in-depth look at the historic, artistic and cultural significance of Western films and television shows. The exhibition explores morality, diversity and American identity as depicted in the Western genre.

Where: Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis

When: Through February 3, 2019

Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for youth ages 5 to 17, free to children 4 and under.

Upcoming events:

  • 7:30 p.m Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday: Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra performs live accompaniment to a pair of Western films — “An Eastern Westerner” and “Safety Last!” The concert will be held at Schrott Center for the Arts, 610 W. 46th St., Indianapolis. Tickets are $25 to $40.
  • 1 to 2 p.m. March 31: “The Painterly Eye: John Ford’s Reel West,” a lecture by Sue Matheson, a Western film scholar for University College of the North. Free with museum admission.
  • 1 p.m. April 7: “Re-Print the Legend: Dramatizing the West in a New Era,” a presentation by Kirk Ellis, Emmy Award-winning writer.
  • 7:30 p.m. April 14 and 3 p.m. April 15: the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus present “Who We Are? She” at the Eiteljorg Museum. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for students and seniors and free for children under 12.


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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.