The County Museum of Natural History is considering closing public exhibition facilities of the Southwest Museum and converting the existing complex to storage and research use if the county museum takes over the Mount Washington center in a merger now under negotiation.
And while the county museum's director said Friday that the shutdown plan is just one of a number of options being explored in the merger negotiations, the president of its board of trustees criticized the location of the Southwest Museum as "inaccessible" and said the closure is likely if the merger is completed.
County museum president Ed Harrison said the Southwest Museum's collection would probably be shifted for public view to a satellite facility now being planned in the Sepulveda Basin of the San Fernando Valley. When reports of the possible merger first surfaced, the Sepulveda Basin plan was said to include only additional--not replacement--exhibition facilities for the Southwest Museum collection.
The prospect that the 80-year-old Southwest Museum's headquarters would no longer be open to the public was immediately criticized by City Councilman Richard Alatorre who said he had been taken by surprise by reports of the merger negotiations in The Times. Alatorre's district includes Mount Washington and Highland Park.
Alatorre urged delay in the merger talks to permit a study of ways either the city or county governments or the Los Angeles Unified School District could help overcome a budget deficit at the Southwest Museum that prompted the merger discussions. Alatorre also took issue with Harrison's comments about the museum's accessibility, noting that parking and other facilities have been significantly improved in a renovation program.
It also was learned that a faction of the Southwest Museum board that opposes the merger plans to approach the County Board of Supervisors with a proposal for public support that would permit continued independence.
The Southwest Museum houses one of the nation's most renowned collections of Native American art, artifacts and anthropological items.
The prospect that the existing museum complex could be converted to a storage and research center that would support exhibit facilities in the San Fernando Valley appeared to have transformed the controversy over the Southwest Museum's fate into a question of ethnic and cultural propriety, as well.
Alatorre asserted that the museum focuses on the history and culture of Latino and Native American people in California and that, in a cultural sense, the museum is ideally located since the demographics of the Highland Park area and the Eastside in general are heavily Latino.
"I would do anything possible to try to maintain the institution where it is," Alatorre said. "I think it's important to the community because the community is predominantly Hispanic."
Craig Black, the county museum's director, confirmed that the relocation plan is one of a number of options being tentatively explored in the event of a takeover of the Southwest Museum. But, he said, "it's awfully early to be talking about concrete statements of that sort. I'm not going to say this hasn't been thrown out as an idea but to say it's anything more (than that) is a little bit hard at this time. I think what will happen is totally up for grabs at the moment. "
Patrick Houlihan, the Southwest Museum's outgoing director, said the proposal to shut down the facility's exhibition halls and shift public access to the artifacts to the San Fernando Valley is culturally insensitive. Houlihan has resigned, effective Nov. 30, in large part because he opposes the merger plan.
"A lot of museum people in the city feel that Hispanics are under-represented in the mix of cultural institutions in Los Angeles," Houlihan said. "The very difficulty the museum has with what some would consider a non-prestigious, non-Westside--where the money is--location is nonetheless where the people whose heritage we hold live.
"I'm sorry this isn't the Westside or Westwood. The purpose of this museum goes beyond just collecting and preserving."
Black and Harrison confirmed that the county museum's interest in the Southwest Museum is part of a broader plan to expand and geographically diversify the county museum's facilities, which are now clustered in Exposition Park.
The county museum already is exploring the possibility of a satellite facility in the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Under discussion is the possibility of turning the Beverly Hills city-owned mansion into a bird research center that would present public lectures and exhibits focusing on ornithology, the study of birds. The 55-room mansion had been under consideration as a museum for Frederick R. Weisman's collection of modern and contemporary art, but after long delays and community opposition the Weisman Foundation decided to seek another location.