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Digitally archiving Autry's treasures

The center receives federal funds to catalog and widen access to 15,000 of its Native American artifacts.

March 09, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The Autry National Center has received a $340,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitally catalog 15,000 California Indian objects. The two-year project, to be announced Monday, will deal with ethnographic objects, archeological artifacts and sound recordings collected by the Southwest Museum, which merged with the Autry in 2003.

"This grant fits very well with two of our initiatives," NEH Chairman Bruce Cole said on a recent visit to the Autry. "One of them, We the People, encourages the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture. The other, the Digital Humanities Initiative, provides broad access to humanities resources through digital technology. Studies have shown that Americans don't know very much about their history. The project at the Autry brings attention to a very important part of our history and cultural patrimony. It's a terrific project, not only in terms of conservation, but access; it will allow people who can't come to the museum to study the objects."

Rebecca Menendez, project director of the Autry's electronic catalog initiative, and Steven Karr, curator at the Southwest Museum, will co-direct the ambitious project. It calls for digitally photographing California Indian objects, compiling information about them and posting the images and text in the electronic catalog.

"We are not just putting pretty pictures on the Web," Karr said. "We are providing content for scholars, the public and native communities."

The Southwest Museum has a collection of about 250,000 objects, including world-renowned holdings of Native American textiles, pottery and baskets. Its library has about 165,000 archival items -- works of art on paper, ephemera, photographs and sound recordings -- and an additional trove of 900 manuscripts. About 40,000 items from the combined holdings are currently online, thanks to earlier grants from the J. Paul Getty Trust and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. The new grant will take the project to the next level, Autry President John L. Gray said.

Cole, an art historian who took charge of the NEH in 2001, described the Autry's award as "substantial." NEH grants run from a few thousand to nearly a million dollars each, he said. Last year, the endowment awarded 1,282 grants, adding up to $120.3 million.

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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