Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

See the Billy the Kid Exhibit


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- The Billy the Kid exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum is well worth seeing for any New Mexican. After all, he's our most famous resident, so we ought to know as much about him as we can.

      This is undoubtedly the best exhibit on the Kid ever put together. It contains an impressive array of memorabilia gathered from public and private collections throughout the nation. It was all put together by Paul Andrew Hutton, a University of New Mexico professor of western history.

      The exhibit includes the butcher knife Billy was carrying the night he was killed, the pistol with which Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him and the carpenter bench on which his body laid.

      Also included are an extensive explanation of the Lincoln County War and its many characters, information on Billy's life, Garrett's efforts to capture him, Billy's correspondence with Gov. Lew Wallace who had promised him a pardon and a wide-ranging display of pop-culture memorabilia from Hutton's personal collection.

      The pop-culture items include dime novels dating back to the 1880s, more recent works by noted authors such as Pulitzer Prize winners Larry McMurtry and N. Scott Momaday, movie posters from many of the more than 60 films portraying Billy, comic book series from the 1940s and '50s, musical scores by artists ranging from Aaron Copeland to Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi and Billy Joel.

      Why was Billy so popular? The exhibit explores that question too. He rose to the defense of longtime locals in Lincoln County who lived under the thumb of outsiders who had taken control and were going to do whatever they could to maintain their stranglehold on the valley.

   Billy and his gang were out to stop them and help the locals who were being wronged. They obviously went outside the law to attain justice and thus his image as the Robin Hood of the West.

   The Kid wasn't like other outlaws, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches for the money. He went outside the law to seek revenge and to aid the oppressed.

   He was also a likable person who loved to sing and dance. In Silver City, he organized minstrel shows to raise money for school projects. He learned to speak Spanish fluently and had many friends who would hide him when the law was on his tail.

   Because of his young age and violent death, he somehow managed to capture the imagination of authors, songwriters, screen writers and classical composers. In most of the exhibit collection he is pictured as a hero.

   But sometimes he isn't. It is easy to cast him in many different molds. During the '60s, he was the tragic, tormented rebel with a cause. Had James Dean lived, he would have portrayed Billy. During the cynicism of the '70s, he was dirty little Billy -- lazy, degenerate and cowardly.

   Little enough is truly known about him that he has been an Everyman throughout literature and entertainment. The exhibit illustrates all these sides.

   The exhibit also covers the effort by three sheriffs to dig up Billy, his mother and Billy's pretenders. On this topic, the exhibit is myopic, treating only the pro-digging side. No mention is made of those of us, including noted historians, forensic scientists and the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, who think the effort is a frivolous wild goose chase.

   But the digging effort has repopularized our most famous New Mexican at a time when the Western craze in film and TV has waned. This exhibit appears to be a result of that renewed interest.

   The principals, who provided much of the exhibit material are people who wanted to see the digging take place. Deputy Sheriff Steve Sederwall, artist and True West magazine president Bob Boze Bell and Hubbard, himself, have been the major players in making this a great exhibit.

   It is good enough that the state departments of Tourism and Cultural Affairs are discussing the possibility of a traveling exhibit. But don't wait for that. See it in Albuquerque before July 22.

MON, 7-2-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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