February – May 2001

The West that captured the imaginations of Americans and foreigners alike was the vast land beyond the Mississippi River known as “Louisiana.” When President Thomas Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon in 1803, the West was not just a geographic region. It was, and still is, a concept of the mind, of the spirit, often more mythic and imaginary than real.

Lewis and Clark were the first explorers sent out to officially define the expansive region. A series of explorers, photographers and artists followed, all of whom provided scientific and artistic documentation that often encouraged mythic interpretations.

Land entrepreneurs lured emigrants with exaggerated claims of idealistic conditions. Those who lived in the West seemed larger than life. Native Americans, mountain men, gold seekers, military heroes, cowboys, gunfighters, outlaws and farmers all became part of the imaginary western environment.

Entertainment media further popularized the West. Fiction writers fabricated stories set in the fantastic western horizons of the mind. Wild West shows and rodeos presented a staged image of the West that captivated foreign audiences as well as Americans. Theatre, film and television continued capitalizing on the emotional lure of western images.

Mass marketing supplies the American West to the entire world. Tourists are compelled to see the West, to purchase keepsakes that perpetuate the dream. Advertisers exploit images of the West in marketing products and services that evoke a nostalgia for the West That Was.

What is myth and what is real? Historians and other scholars have built careers defining the real West. This exhibition presents a taste of the West to tickle your fancy, to inspire your imagination and to encourage your thoughtful consideration.

Prepared by Kathy Wachel, Karen Zimmerman, Carlette Washington-Hoagland, Rob Van Rennes, Lisa Kelley and Anna Embree.