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She's sitting on a secret

Tiny bundles found under a wax figurine are among treasures in a new show.

August 12, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Dressed in faded silk brocade and oxidized metallic lace, the delicate wax likeness of the Virgin Mary is perched on a gold and white chair, head tilted under the weight of her crown. She's a sweet little religious artifact, but not imposing enough to attract much attention. And so she sat -- for who knows how long -- in the chapel of Casa de Adobe, a facsimile of a pre-1850s Spanish California rancho maintained by the Southwest Museum on Mount Washington.

But when the 16-inch-tall figure arrived at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park in preparation for the exhibition "El Norte -- The Spanish and Mexican North," conservator Richard Moll made a startling discovery: Three muslin bundles of history and mystery were sewn to the underside of the skirt and the legs of the chair.

Jewels, perhaps? Moll had other ideas. The sculpture had been fumigated as part of a massive effort to clean and conserve the Southwest's collection. But it got his attention because there were insect nests in the clothing.

"When I found the bundles, I took them off because I was afraid of what would be inside," Moll says. Instead of the expected bug carcasses, he found that each parcel contained a piece of heavy paper, rolled up and stitched together.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum exhibit -- An article in some editions of Thursday's Calendar Weekend section about the "El Norte" exhibition misidentified the Museum of the American West as the Autry Museum of the American West. It was formerly the Autry Museum of Western Heritage; it is now part of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. Also, a headline for the article said that mysterious paper bundles found with a figurine were part of the exhibit. They are not on display.

"One bundle contained newspaper clippings, circa 1854, in Polish and German," he says. "We haven't completed the translation, but there's some mention of troop movements in the Crimean War. The second item was a handwritten itinerary from 1816, listing initials and dates. The third was a piece of blue paper, of a type that might have been used for wrapping books or gifts. The remarkable thing about the blue paper is that it has a large watermark, 4 inches by 6 inches; it's a heraldic watermark with a beehive center, which probably means that it's German."

Moll had to humidify and flatten the buried treasures before he could begin to understand what he had found. He's willing to speculate that they are mementos of family history or fragments that signify wishes for safety, when the figure was transported to a new home. But for now, he has stored the papers in archival folders, where they await further study.

"There is an ongoing practice of making these dolls in southern Mexico," Moll says. This one came to the Southwest Museum many years ago as a gift of John Hudson Poole, a major donor. But where Poole got it and what the hidden bits of paper meant to the original owner remain a mystery, he says.

As for "El Norte," Autry historian Louise Pubols organized the show to recount the early history of the Spanish in the West, as part of a series that will evolve into a permanent installation. She selected art and artifacts from the Southwest and Autry museums, which merged in 2003 under the umbrella of the Autry National Center.

The Southwest is renowned for its vast collection of Native American material. "El Norte" gave Pubols and Moll an opportunity to delve into the museum's relatively small and all-but-secret Hispanic collection. And the bundles under the skirt are not the only surprise.

Among the 450 paintings moved to the Autry for conservation and possible display are an image of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Spanish master Alonso Cano; "Our Lady of Sorrows," a painting of unknown authorship, circa 1700, said to have protected Spanish missionaries; and "De Indio y Zambaigo Albarazado," an anonymously created example of 18th century casta paintings, which documented Mexican interracial families accord- ing to a caste system.

The paintings join Mexican statuary, Native American ceramics and basketry, a European suit of armor and a southern California branding iron, among other objects, in the exhibition. But the pieces on view merely hint at what's going on behind the scenes at the recently merged museums, Moll says.

The Southwest remains open, but part of its exhibition space is being used for conservation. To make way for that project, the textiles collection has been moved to the Autry, where it is available to researchers and members of the Native American community. Moll and his associates are cleaning the Hispanic paintings.

Intriguing as the story of little wax figure may be, he says, it's a tiny indicator of what lies ahead for the staff as they sift through the Southwest's collection and figure out how to take care of it.

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'El Norte'

Where: Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays

Ends: May 8

Price: $3 to $7.50

Contact: (323) 667-2000

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