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Southwest Museum pulls itself up by its bootstraps

With a leg-up from the Autry, the venue housing a large collection of Native American artifacts, gussies up.

July 05, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

What was Charles Fletcher Lummis thinking?

The founder of the Southwest Museum and first city editor of the Los Angeles Times -- who worked closely with architects Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns as they planned the museum's eccentric Mission Revival building on Mt. Washington -- probably loved the breathtaking views from the tower. But why did he design a 115-foot-tall, seven-level structure, accessible only by a central, spiral staircase, as a storage facility for what would become one of the world's finest collections of Native American art? And why did the heaviest pieces, ceramic pots, end up on the top floor?

Such are the charms and challenges of L.A.'s oldest museum, chartered in 1907, opened in 1914 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

You have to love the place, and many people do. But sustaining a quirky building that has suffered from earthquakes, water damage, deferred maintenance and a chronic shortage of funds isn't easy. Neither is preserving a 250,000-piece collection of textiles, pottery, baskets, beaded clothing and ethnographic objects that has been squirreled away for decades under less-than-optimal conditions.

Since 2003, when the Southwest merged with the Museum of the American West under the umbrella of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park, the Autry has spent more than $7.5 million to conserve the collection and repair the Mt. Washington building.

"This has been a heroic effort," says John L. Gray, president and chief executive of the Autry National Center, standing in the lobby of a museum that has been transformed into a conservation and renovation site. And the ongoing project involves more than spending money on professional services.

A plan to modernize and expand the Griffith Park facility, including new galleries and visible storage space for a large portion of the Southwest's collection, is wending its way through a public review process. But community objections to the expansion, based on fears that the Mt. Washington facility will eventually cease to operate as a museum, persist.

The massive renewal project has reduced the museum's visibility. The galleries have been closed for three years and aren't scheduled to reopen until 2012, when the historic institution will begin a new life as the Southwest Museum Education and Cultural Center, offering exhibitions of Native American material and related programs.

From 2 to 4 p.m. July 19, a celebration of the renovated tower -- formally called the Caracol Tower because the staircase's helix pattern resembles the shell of a caracol (Spanish for snail) -- will give the public a rare opportunity to tour a signature element of the museum. Visitors will learn that the tower has a new roof and drainage system, cracks have been sealed with epoxy and all the surfaces have fresh coats of plaster and paint.

"Water mitigation has been the big accomplishment," says Pam Hannah, the Southwest's director of operations. "We have done the hardest part, though not the largest part. We now have to do the same thing to the rest of the building." Much remains to be done on the collection as well. The textiles, one of the most valuable parts of the holding, were conserved and moved to the Autry a few years ago. Other objects -- including 10,000 ceramics, 14,000 baskets and 20,000 ethnographic objects -- have been put on temporary shelves in the galleries. All 250,000 objects are being cleaned, bar-coded, photographed and housed in custom-made supports or containers so that they can be studied and moved without being touched.

The ethnographic pieces, made of organic materials that are sensitive to changes of temperature and humidity, have been the priority, says Peg Brady, collections manager. All 20,000 objects have been put in a freezer to kill insects and other pests. Items in need of special attention go to in-house conservators who mend tears and fix sagging forms.

A doll's dress and tiny pouches made of seal intestine had to be softened with heat and reshaped, then repaired with an adhesive that won't harm the material. Some baskets have to be heat-treated to restore their forms. Broken fibers are fixed with Japanese tissue and wheat paste.

"Our primary emphasis now," Brady says, "is rehousing the ethnographic pieces because they are in the most immediate need of stabilization. We are about halfway through that process."

While tending to the vast collection, one object at a time, the museum's conservators and collection managers also keep up with changes in museum practices, she says. "We are now making archival custom boxes. The collection has a variety of shapes and sizes, so we have to make many of the boxes ourselves. That's part of the complexity.

"Bar-coding has been standard practice for years," she says, "but with new technology we now have a computerized database that tells us where each object is stored. Not everything is on our website yet, but lots of objects and information are there."

As visitors climb the tower stairs and get a glimpse of the conservation project through glass gallery doors, plans are shaping up for an exhibition of the Southwest's baskets, said to be the world's largest collection of Native American basketry. Opening Nov. 5 at the Autry, the show will encompass 150 years of the art form.

Like the tower celebration, the exhibition is intended to remind the public that the Southwest Museum is alive and its collection is a great cultural resource. "The basket show will be a big deal," Gray says. "People will see the collection as they have never seen it before."

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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