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Indian Civilizations : Forest Lawn Museum Resurrects Mexico Before the Conquest

August 06, 1987|MARC HAEFELE | Haefele is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer.

Hubert Eaton, founder of Forest Lawn cemetery and the man Evelyn Waugh parodied in his satirical novel "The Loved One," once decried other cemeteries as unsightly stone yards "full of inartistic symbols and depressing customs."

Eaton promised to fill these with "beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, noble memorial architecture with interiors full of light and color."

And he made good on that promise.

Today, the 70-year-old Burbank cemetery complex is world famous for its mingling of art and history with the business of undertaking and remembrance.

Last week, Forest Lawn unveiled its latest attraction--a museum and court dedicated to the past civilizations of Mexico featuring, among other things, angry deities demanding human sacrifice.

Several educators seem puzzled by the exhibit's intentions.

"It's not what everyone expected," said Prof. Alexander Moore, a USC anthropologist who was retained as a temporary consultant by Forest Lawn for the opening ceremonies. "It is Forest Lawn's first non-European display, and it's more or less a professional rendition."

Other reactions have ranged from the bewildered to the critical to the complimentary.

"It's odd," said Isabel Castro, a prominent Chicana photographer and teacher. "I'm not sure what they are trying to achieve."

The Museum of Pre-Columbian History and Plaza of Mexican Heritage apparently reflect the interests of Eaton's successor as Forest Lawn's general manager and chief executive, 70-year-old Frederick Llewelyn, a student of American civilization before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

"Mr. Llewelyn has taken extensive vacations to Central America and Mexico," said Ted Brandt, Forest Lawn vice-president. He became interested in showing how advanced these ancient civilizations were. He has taken an extremely personal interest in the project."

And the project is focused on the young. Each year, 50,000 schoolchildren visit the Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn historical displays, Brandt said.

"We want to help Hispanic children to get a sense of how rich their own culture is," he said.

The exhibit is also expected, Brandt added, to bring more Latino visitors to Forest Lawn, and eventually, more Latino customers. Many Latino families now bury their loved ones in Mexico.

"When you look at the population changes, this does make sense," Brandt said.

"If we get an increase in business, that's fine. But that's not the intent," he said. The intent, Forest Lawn officials said, is to display the depth and richness of Mexican heritage.

Cemetery officials won't say how much the museum and plaza cost, but more than 10,000 work hours in three years went into the project.

Reproductions Only

In the Forest Lawn tradition, the Plaza of Mexican Heritage and the museum display only reproductions. The museum's smaller works are all from shops near the Instituto Antropologico in Mexico City, said Margaret Burton, a longtime Forest Lawn employee who is the museum's director.

In a park whose founder pledged to keep the grounds "devoid of misshapen monuments," hand-sculpted reproductions of the gods of the Mayas, the Toltecs, the Aztecs, Zapotecs and other cultures surround a 3,000-square-foot court centered on a reproduction of a mosaic from the oldest known Mexican civilization, that of the Olmecs.

The exhibit includes reproductions of a first-millennium B.C. sculptured head and the 24-ton Calendar Stone, often used to symbolize Mexico's Pre-Columbian past.

The big disk and squat, baby-faced head stand among 16 (soon to be 17) carved reproductions of Meso-American art and architecture.

Nearby, a refurbished wing of the Hall of Liberty houses a small, tightly organized museum. In the museum are reproductions of costumes, maps and charts reaching back 3,000 years into the native civilizations of North America.

Through glass doors, visitors can make a somewhat jarring transition from the art of Monte Alban and the Mayas to a hall featuring memorabilia of Betsy Ross, George Washington and other historic patriots--once the Hall of Liberty's exclusive stock in trade.

The sculpture court was designed by Forest Lawn's chief architect Tom Anthony, but Burton has supervised the museum's contents, she said. She even sewed the costume displays.

Burton is proud of her work, which she said followed three intense months of study at the county Museum of National History and "the reading of about 10,000 books."

But Carlos Barron, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Mexican-American Education Commission, wondered why the project's originators hadn't sought help or advice of more members of the Los Angeles scholarly and educational community.

Any attempt to teach children the ancient Mexican cultures, Barron said, should also try to link those cultures' tradition with the Latino cultures of today.

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