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Money Shortage Closes Southwest Museum Library

March 27, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The Southwest Museum has closed its 80-year-old library and extensive historical archives in what the museum's Board of Trustees said is a drastic attempt to cut costs and balance the budget.

The Casa de Adobe, a re-creation of a pre-1850s Spanish ranch house owned by the Mt. Washington museum, has also been closed indefinitely.

The decisions, announced at a board meeting last week, were greeted with dismay by scholars and researchers familiar with the museum's unique collection of Western, Indian and Spanish Colonial materials.

"I think it's extremely unfortunate," said Christopher Donnan, director of UCLA's Museum of Cultural History. "There are a lot of extraordinary documents. Historians would be at a real disadvantage not having access to them."

Norman Sprague Jr., Board of Trustees president, said the museum will attempt to raise $100,000, which would allow both the library and Casa de Adobe to reopen. "Hopefully, they will be closed only on a temporary basis," Sprague said in an interview this week.

About 70,000 books, 150,000 turn-of-the-century photographs and thousands of original manuscripts, including diaries, letters and anthropological field research papers, are stored in the Southwest Museum library, according to librarian Daniela Moneta. She said 150 people use the library each month, some researchers coming from as far away as Europe and South America.

Moneta said the museum will try to accommodate requests for rare materials that cannot be found in other archives, but since the library's three staffers have been laid off, museum officials have not yet determined how this will be done.

"We're still setting up ground rules," Moneta said. "We feel we're morally obligated . . . to allow people to use the unique collection."

One graduate student from Madrid, for instance, is halfway through reading a rare book about 16th-Century Spanish explorers in the New World. "We can't just turn her away," Moneta said.

But more mundane research has been put on the shelf indefinitely, museum director Patrick T. Houlihan said. Houlihan said he spoke out against closing the library and the Casa de Adobe at the Board of Trustees meeting but was overruled.

Founded in 1907

The Southwest Museum, a fortress-like Spanish adobe building that perches high on Mt. Washington in Northeast Los Angeles overlooking the Pasadena Freeway, was founded by amateur historian and Indian expert Charles Lummis in 1907. About 60,000 people, including 25,000 elementary school students, visit the museum each year.

Museum experts and anthropologists say that since Houlihan became director in 1981, he has helped transform the museum from a down-at-the-heels warehouse to an attractive, first-rate institution that is considered one of the finest of its kind.

Under his supervision, the museum was almost completely renovated: The first two levels were rebuilt, modern storage areas were installed and the museum's 90,000 art objects--which include baskets, textiles, pottery and kachina dolls--were properly catalogued, many for the first time.

Between 1981 and 1986, the museum's staff tripled and the operating budget swelled from $200,000 to $1.2 million, officials said. Last year the Southwest Museum received accreditation from the prestigious American Assn. of Museums and endowments reached an all-time high of $2.3 million, according to Houlihan.

But endowments must be invested and cannot be used to pay operating expenses such as salaries and maintenance, officials said. In 1986, the Southwest Museum plunged $400,000 into the red when it raised only $800,000 of its $1.2-million operating budget, Houlihan said.

Move to Cut Budget

Thus, last week the Board of Trustees moved to reduce this year's annual operating budget by 22%, Houlihan said. In addition to closing the library and the Casa de Adobe, which draws 5,000 visitors each year, the board eliminated a $25,000 library acquisition budget and laid off the three reference and special collections librarians. Museum librarian Moneta said she also may be out of a job after she finishes work on a grant-funded special project.

"We hate to have to close these facilities, but we're just forced to do it," Sprague said. Our funds for operating have not kept up with the demands we've had."

Museum treasurer Thomas E. Holliday said he hopes to establish a special committee to raise funds. There are no plans to raise admission prices, now set at $2.50 for adults, $1 for senior citizens and students and 75 cents for children.

Revenue Breakdown

About a third of the museum's operating budget comes from private contributions. Interest generated by the museum's endowment accounts for another third, and the balance is supplied by sales from the museum store and admission and membership fees, Holliday said.

Meanwhile, those who once mined the Southwest Museum's extensive archives have been left high and dry by its sudden closure.

Victoria Westermark of Santa Monica, for instance, had been poring through anthropological notes on the Northern Cheyenne Indian tribe for a project she hopes to make into a film.

"They have the personal papers of someone I'm doing research on. It's extremely frustrating for me to know that it's there and want to do real thorough research and not be able to do it," Westermark said.

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