In one room at the Southwest Museum on Friday, two dozen children gazed at Zuni bowls and Navajo blankets. In another, third-graders huddled at the foot of a yellow tepee -- business as usual, it might seem, at the oldest museum in Los Angeles.
But that man and woman in the lobby -- why were they debating moral responsibility? And that printed notice on the bench -- why are the museum collections disappearing from public view on Saturday?
The compound answer is that next week, the Mt. Washington institution will begin a stem-to-stern overhaul aimed at repairing the 99-year-old institution's long-neglected building, an effort that starts with moving tens of thousands of artifacts from room to room, but that will eventually relocate many to Griffith Park and redefine the institution itself.
Some of the museum's neighbors, however, say it's more like a hijacking than a redefinition. Denouncing "cultural piracy," the Friends of the Southwest Museum coalition contend that the people behind the move are dodging "a moral responsibility to maintain and revitalize" the institution's original location.
Their nemesis is the man who stood in the lobby Friday: John Gray, chief executive of the Griffith Park-based Autry National Center, which has operated the Southwest Museum since rescuing it from financial doom in a 2003 merger.
He loves the building, Gray said, and "this is a very poignant time." But "we really have decided that this can't be an exclusive museum usage." His moral obligation, he said, is "to preserve a collection in perpetuity and to enhance the public's understanding of our shared history. And that's exactly what we're doing."
The woman standing with him and waiting for her turn was Nicole Possert, co-chair of the coalition, a Highland Park resident since 1989, and a frequent critic.
"This is a three-year trail of broken promises, from our perspective," she said. "We're fighting to have them see what we see -- that the glass is more than half full."
The coalition doesn't deny that the iconic Southwest building needs work and that the collection is getting better care now, she said. But in its zest to expand in Griffith Park, she said, the Autry is deliberately underestimating the 12-acre Mt. Washington site's potential as a museum location.
Not so, Gray maintains. Without the Autry's intervention in 2003, "the Southwest would have closed," he said. "And it would have closed for good reason. It didn't have the attendance, it didn't have the membership, it didn't have the public that was needed to keep the doors open."
Autry officials estimate last year's Southwest Museum attendance at 40,000, about half of which was nonpaying youngsters in school groups. The Autry's Museum of the American West drew an estimated 165,000 visitors, about 50,000 of them students.
Autry officials say that they've already spent more than $5 million shoring up the Southwest's building and that they could end up spending an additional $15 million on replacing the roof and on seismic work, drawing heavily on state and federal grants.
The Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, nudged into the middle of this argument by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has already held two public meetings to air museum leaders' plans and collect community input. A third meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Ramona Hall, 4580 N. Figueroa St.
The most dramatic of the seismic tasks is to reattach the Southwest's signature tower to the rest of the building. To do that, staffers must empty the tower, which has stored tens of thousands of artifacts for decades -- and it's those pieces that workers are moving from plywood cabinets into portable archival storage materials and freezing (to kill bugs). In months ahead, thousands of those displaced artifacts will be stacked in the Southwest's exhibit areas.
The destination of the collection, roughly 240,000 objects, is the core of the disagreement. Autry leaders plan to move many of the pieces to Griffith Park and exhibit them in about 20,000 square feet of space they hope to build adjoining the Museum of the American West there.
Back at the old Southwest building, which in recent years has devoted 8,000 to 10,500 square feet to exhibition, Autry leaders aim to cut that number to 4,500 square feet and devote the rest to nonmuseum uses, such as educational programs. It will be at least 3 1/2 years, Autry officials say, before the Southwest's Mt. Washington campus is fully open again.
"Two rooms do not a museum make," Possert said. "If you need more exhibition space, don't build it in a public park. Build it here."