Gangsters and Gunslingers

Past Exhibition: 23 March – 3 November 2013

Gangsters and Gunslingers: The Good, The Bad & The Memorabilia
America’s Outlaw Heroes from The David Gainsborough Roberts Collection

Gangsters and Gunslingers brings centre stage two mythic moments in the history of the United States that shaped America’s national identity: the Wild West (mid 1860s to the late 1880s) and the wild years of the Prohibition/Depression era (1920s and early 1930s). Each epoch produced legendary characters, who have become famous and infamous – Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Bonnie and Clyde to name but a few. For the benefit of the inhabitants of America’s industrial eastern cities, homegrown ‘western’ heroes and villains performed acts of derring-do, penned by writers who had seldom (if ever) abandoned their urban comforts for the inconveniences of travelling to the frontier or even to small Midwestern towns.

The debilitating lives lived by many in squalid city sweatshops, unregulated factories, and cramped offices fuelled the mass market for ‘real life’ western adventure stories in dime novels, the pulps, and sensational newspapers. Individuals immortalised in print became victims of the popular fiction they inspired: their literary namesakes appeared more alive, even to them, than their all too frail corporeal selves. Just like the heroes in ancient tales, America’s gangsters and gunslingers showed hubris and began to act as if they were indestructible. Their ends, however, were often anything but heroic.

For Gangsters and Gunslingers, the Museum again showcased treasures from the comprehensive Americana collection and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts. (Based in Jersey, Roberts generously partnered the Museum for its popular 2011 exhibition Marilyn – Hollywood Icon.)

“I am delighted that so wide a range of items in my collection can be placed on view in such a magnificent – and appropriate – setting as the American Museum. The ‘Marilyn’ show was spectacular fun. I have never seen my collection better displayed. I have no doubt that ‘Gangsters & Gunslingers’ will be as moving and memorable – especially for anyone, who like me, wanted to grow up to be a cowboy!”

David Gainsborough Roberts

In one of John Wayne’s most memorable collaborations with John Ford, the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a character observes: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ There has never been a better précis summing up how the history of the Wild West and the wild years of the Prohibition/Depression era has been represented and misrepresented in print and on film. Gangsters and Gunslingers – The Good, the Bad, & the Memorabilia investigates how facts gave way to the demands of popular fiction and how history became hearsay – the past imperfect.


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