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Gangsters and Gunslingers - The American Museum in Britain

Al Capone

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Gangsters and Gunslingers – The Good, the Bad and the Memorabilia will be on display at The American Museum in Britain from March 23 to November 3, 2013.

Gangsters and Gunslingers is an exhibition that brings together two defining chapters 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, which 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 endured 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 American Museum in Britain will showcase treasures from the comprehensive Americana collection and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts. Based in Jersey, Channel Islands, Gainsborough Roberts generously partnered the American Museum for its popular 2011 exhibition Marilyn – Hollywood Icon.

“I am delighted,” Gainsborough Roberts comments, “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!”

Wyatt Earp’s Gambling Dice and Secret Card Feeder

Historical artefacts and memorabilia from Hollywood’s Golden Age in the exhibition include:

Native American weapons confiscated in reprisal for the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, (Montana Territory) in 1876, including a European trade rifle decorated with traditional beadwork and Chief Gall’s war club.

The medicine bag owned by Doc Holliday, a survivor of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Tombstone, Arizona Territory) in 1881, containing the tools of his dental trade and a photograph of his uncle.

The watch worn by Clyde Barrow when he was gunned down with Bonnie Parker in 1934. Before the corpses had been taken away, a crowd of souvenir hunters gathered around the bullet-riddled car, tearing strips from the stained garments and cutting bloody locks of hair.

One of the two death masks of John Dillinger with the exit wound of the bullet that killed him clearly visible below his right eye, when he was ambushed by federal agents outside a Chicago cinema in 1934.

Silver cigarette cases presented by Chicago mob boss John Torrio to his successor, Al Capone, and by Bosie Douglas to his disgraced lover, Oscar Wilde.

Guns worn by Wyatt Earp, Frank James, and John Dillinger – whose stories were all commemorated (and glamorised) by Hollywood.

Memorabilia owned by Hollywood gangsters and gunslingers, including Tom Mix, Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Elvis Presley.

Gangsters and Gunslingers – The Good, the Bad and the Memorabilia investigates how facts gave way to the demands of popular fiction and how history became hearsay – the past imperfect.

The American Museum In Britain, Claverton Manor, Bath, BA2 7BD