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Zan Thompson

An Enriching Visit to the 'Gold' Exhibit

April 05, 1987|Zan Thompson

The great, billowing Romanesque pile that is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County still sits like Queen Victoria, parceling out creme mints after tea to very good boys and girls.

The museum is always worth an afternoon, even if there were nothing to look at but the dinosaur skeletons. Then most of the time, they have a special exhibit, too, which makes a trip a delightful afternoon.

Right now and until May 17, they have one of the largest collections of gold ever assembled. They call it, "Gold: The Quest for New World Riches." As you can tell from the title it's about gold and the Americas, from the Klondike to the tip of South America. The first room shows you gold as it is found in nature. The first thing you see, in a center case, is a nugget as big as a woman's fist, said to be the biggest nugget ever discovered. Some stunned rock hound found it near Mojave in 1977. Looking at it, its size, its satin luster, its rich sensuous lumps, it is easy to see how a gold rush starts.

On display is a beautiful piece of crystal gold. It looks as if it might be a piece of fine coral dipped in gold, lacy and fragile, as if it would shatter at a breath. This one came from the Spanish Dry Diggins in El Dorado County. It weighs 12 1/2 pounds.

There's a large specimen of something called wire gold, which looks manufactured, as if it had been squeezed out of a tube as a thick paste. But that's the way it is found in nature and is the rarest form of gold. This one came from the Ground Hog mine in Gilman, Ariz.

The gold ornaments made and used by man start with pre-Colombian gold. Much of this display is from the museum's own collection, a great deal from the museum in Bogota, Colombia, and the museum at UCLA.

There are ear pieces, nose pieces, parts of elaborate headdresses, rings, bracelets. This is a microscopic part of what archeologists were able to find after the depredations of the Spanish conquest of the continent which began in 1492. Tons were melted into bars and sent back to the court of Spain.

And because the jewelry and adornments were not all found by scientists but by anyone who stumbled on them, much of what is left is impossible to date. But there is so much on display that it's easy to imagine these ancient peoples dressed in all their gold finery for special festivals.

There are eagle ornaments and masks of gold. The gentlemen used gold beer vessels about 10 inches tall, decorated with styled friezes, from which they drank corn beer. The gold is blind embossed. That is, the artisan carved the design on a block of wood and then tapped the gold around it slowly and gently so that when he peeled it off, the design was raised on the cup. Leg armor, breastplates, necklaces, drinking vessels are there to be seen.

Considering the gold fever that is so virulent in man and always has been, it's surprising there is so much left. One exhibit shows a cask full of Spanish gold coins spilled into the sand, glistening as brightly as the day the ship went down.

The California Gold Rush, triggered when John Marshall found the famous nugget, is well and duly noted. The actual nugget is present in the exhibit. The prospectors weighed their gold in San Francisco, on opium scales that looked like long-handled castanets. The gold dust was placed in half of the softly rounded wood and balanced with an ivory arm with a weight on the end. Moving the weight up and down measured the gold.

The museum is planning a big Gold Rush Day Sunday, April 26. Admission will be $4 but the new admission to the museum will then be $3.50. So for $4 you can see the gold and everything in the museum. A special ticket is needed for the gold exhibit: Call (213) 744-6292 for information. Wells Fargo will roll out a stagecoach on that day, and mining equipment from their collection will be shown. There will be a photographer to take pictures of the whole family in costumes of the period--the only thing that will cost extra.

At 3 p.m. in the museum auditorium, John Serembe will tell gold rush stories, drawing on the work of Mark Twain and Jack London.

Actress Judith Helton will bring Lotta Crabtree to life. She was an actress and song-and-dance girl, the darling of San Francisco and the '49ers. She was a rounded little woman, who wore high button shoes and stripped stockings and pulled her curls back into a tumble at the back of her head. There were those who said Lotta was no better than she should have been. Well, sakes, why should she have been the exception?

At the very last of the exhibit is a real Apollo helmet, its visor coated with gold by a vacuum process--for only gold can kill the glare in space.

Until April 26 there is also an exhibit of the works of Ben Abril, 52 paintings of California missions, school-houses, covered bridges--so California, you can smell the sage, the mesquite.

These Abril paintings hang on the lofty museum walls and I fondly wish one hung on mine. The museum owns 36 paintings of the old mansions on Bunker Hill, all since torn down, so that grouping is a treasure. Abril painted each picture alla prima, which means it was all completed in one working session. It's a lovely dividend with the gold show if you go before April 26.

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