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Treasures of the New and Old West

Exhibits showcase local history, from the Ice Age to the Hollywood of today.


A little-known fact: Los Angeles County has 28 shopping malls and 31 beaches, yet more than 100 museums--and that's not counting 100 or so other historic sites, botanical gardens and special library collections.

From the world-famous J. Paul Getty Museum to the lesser-known Ralph W. Miller Golf Library and Museum, Los Angeles has exhibit spaces for art, sure, and for practically everything else too.

A family of people with nothing in common could split up on the Museum Row stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, and each person would find something to see. Next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits holds one of the world's richest sites for Ice Age fossils: saber-toothed cats, mammoths, giant sloths and the like.

At the Carol and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, the exhibits are much smaller: a one-twelfth-scale reproduction of the Fontainebleau Palace is detailed down to the chandeliers, and George Stuart's quarter-scale historical figures are accurate down to the rhinestone buckles on Louis XIV's boots. The Craft and Folk Art Museum collects traditional and contemporary crafts and is showing the work of Slovenian artisans.

The Southwest Museum's satellite space on Museum Row (its main location is in Mount Washington, north of downtown) is exhibiting more than 300 pieces in "Reflections of Culture: Basketry From the Southwest Museum." Petersen Automotive Museum reflects California's car culture and features a special installation: "Hollywood Star Cars: Great Cars of the Movies" contains two Batmobiles, the Flintstone's car and Thelma and Louise's '66 Thunderbird.

(For the transportation-minded, there's also the Museum of Flying, with its WWII fighter planes, and the Lomita Railroad Museum.)

Two other museums are particularly appropriate for Southern California: the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and the Museum of Television and Radio. Each is more serious-minded than visitors might assume. The latter is a place to watch the boob tube, sure. But, the TV museum and its New York counterpart consistently program interesting and challenging packages. It's offering one now on presidential TV ads.

The Autry, founded by singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry, seeks to interpret the history (both real and mythic) of the American West. Its show "On Gold Mountain" examines Chinese immigration into California, linking its displays to Lisa See's book of the same title.

Indeed, L.A.'s museums are a culturally diverse as the city itself. Within a few blocks in downtown stand the Japanese American National Museum, with a special show on the role of sports in that community, and the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, which has an exhibit about Cesar Chavez up until Aug. 18. Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum highlights the Asian and Asian American arts and culture.

The California African-American Museum, in Exposition Park, takes a similar arts-and-culture approach, as indicated by the display of African instruments through Aug. 20. The Skirball Cultural Center explores and interprets the Jewish experience in America through exhibits and events.

All museums provide some kind of learning experience, but some are particularly educational. The Museum of Tolerance teaches the dynamics of racial and religious prejudice in America in addition to the history of the Holocaust, with walk-through recreations and multimedia. The California Science Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History--neighbors in Exposition Park--and the Los Angeles Children's Museum have a lot to pique the interest of young visitors.

Some places bring out the kid in everyone. Tops on the list is The Museum of Jurassic Technology, made less obscure by the publication of the book "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder" a few years ago. There's no way to summarize it. You just have to go. The Museum of Neon Art is, likewise, a smile generator, dedicated to preserving historic neon signs and displaying new neon art.

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"I urge you to be here in late April, so that you can experience the Festival of Books, which is not only the greatest book fair in the United States but also the most inspiring cultural event in Los Angeles--an awesome celebration of this city's diversity and this nation's literature."


Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer

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