WASHINGTON (AP) – The founding president of the Autry National Center of the American West, a group of museums in Los Angeles and Denver, has been named director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, the museum complex announced Tuesday.
John Gray will lead one of the nation’s most popular museums, which is on track to host 5 million visitors this year, beginning July 23. Gray had a 25-year career in commercial banking, served in the U.S. Small Business Administration in the Clinton administration and earned a master’s degree in business administration before joining the museum field.
In 1999, Gray became CEO of a museum devoted to the legacy of movie star Gene Autry in Los Angeles and is credited with transforming it into a major cultural center. Gray merged it with Colorado’s Women of the West Museum and Los Angeles’ Southwest Museum of the American Indian. The combined center with more than 500,000 objects also created the Institute for the Study of the American West.
Gray, 63, called the Smithsonian’s U.S. history museum the “most important history museum in America.” He told The Associated Press he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to help lead it, even though he retired in 2010, enrolled in a master’s degree program in Eastern classics and built a home in Santa Fe, N.M.
“One of the joys I have is looking at museums through a non-museum eye _ what does it actually mean for me?” he said. He recalled his first visit to the Smithsonian was with his family as a child, and he has been a “compulsive museum-goer” ever since.
“Museums have always been the way I learned and understood the world,” he said.
Smithsonian officials said they were impressed with Gray’s experience transforming the Autry museum to tell a fuller story of American history.
“He took a museum of the American West, including the collections of Gene Autry, and transformed it into an institution representing a broader, inclusive and complicated vision of the American West,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture, in announcing the appointment.
At least one exhibit from Gray’s tenure there, “On Gold Mountain: The Chinese-American Experience,” was shown at the Smithsonian in 2001.
The National Museum of American History, which is home to the flag that inspired the national anthem, the first ladies’ inauguration gowns and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” has been criticized for not representing the full scope of U.S. history. Ten years ago, a blue-ribbon commission called the museum’s layout confusing and questioned its less-than-inclusive presentation, noting that religion, immigration and slavery were underrepresented. It is in the midst of a major overhaul of its exhibition wings to broaden its scope.
In the years ahead the Smithsonian will build a National Museum of African American History and Culture, and there is legislation in Congress for a Latino American museum. Some have questioned whether that leaves the American history museum as the history of white Americans. Gray said the museum should present an inclusive view of history from many perspectives.
“I’d make the argument that there’s really one American story and that within that one American story are multiple voices, multiple histories,” he said.
Gray succeeds Brent Glass, who retired as director in August 2011. Glass led the museum since 2002, overseeing a major renovation of the museum’s central core and Star-Spangled Banner gallery. He also brought costumed historical characters into the museum to engage visitors.
Gray will oversee 234 employees at the museum with an annual budget of more than $34 million.
The biggest challenge ahead for the museum is to become more appealing and exciting for visitors in a digital age with greater demands and expectations, Gray said. If done right, artifacts transport people back in time, he said. So his goal is to make a museum visit “almost a more magical experience of understanding and being engaged in our history.”
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