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Los Angeles' Southwest Museum is an artifact worth saving

Closed since 2006, its world-class collection of Native American art lies mostly in storage.

July 01, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Heike Madsen, left, and Patricia Calderon record details about some bows and arrows at the Southwest Museum, which merged with the Autry Museum in 2003. The Autry has sunk $10 million into L.A.s first museum, and its extensive collection of Native American artifacts.
Heike Madsen, left, and Patricia Calderon record details about some bows… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Somewhere up there in California heaven, Charles Fletcher Lummis is not a happy man.

A journalist and an obsessive collector of all things Western, Lummis was a pioneer L.A. historian who defended the cultural heritage of our state and region against those who would insult, ignore or steal it.

He founded the city's first museum and built its first important museum building in 1914. And today, his Southwest Museum still rises like a castle on a hillside overlooking Lummis' favorite corner of the city, the Arroyo Seco.

Photos: The Southwest Museum

The Southwest Museum is conveniently located next to the Metro Gold Line station of the same name. But you can't visit the museum, and haven't been able to since it was closed to the public in 2006.

"I think he'd be outraged," said Patricia Adler-Ingram, a USC historian and executive director of the Historical Society of Southern California. "He'd wonder why all this material he collected isn't available for people to see."

The Southwest Museum was the Getty of its day — grand, ambitious and a declaration in stone of L.A.'s arrival on the world stage.

Now much of the collection Lummis started sits in boxes and on shelves inside the old building. The Autry museum assumed control in 2003. This week, Joan Cumming, an Autry spokeswoman, took me to see it.

We saw hundreds of thousands of artifacts, most of them Native American, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We came upon a tiny whale, carved by Chumash Indians from soapstone quarried from the Channel Islands. A canoe made by the Seri Indian people of Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California.

And we saw the aging structure that housed all these things, damaged by time and earthquakes. The Autry has spent more than $10 million, Cumming told me, to keep it all from tumbling down and to keep the precious artifacts inside safe and preserved for future generations.

But Cumming also told me that the Southwest Museum can never again be what it was. And that it shouldn't be. If he were alive today, Charles Lummis would want his collection "in the place where the most people could see it," she said. And that's over at the Autry museum, in Griffith Park, across the street from the L.A. Zoo.

I disagree. The Southwest Museum needs to be reopened, in the building Lummis created for it, and with at least some of the artifacts he assembled for it. And we need to do this, I told Cumming, because the building and the collection are themselves a precious artifact of L.A. history.

The Southwest Museum stands for the moment when Los Angeles became aware of itself.

"It's the cradle of where culture began for Los Angeles," said Nicole Possert of the Save the Southwest Museum Coalition.

Lummis lived in a time when civilization was defined by all things Roman and Greek. Los Angeles was a city on the American frontier and, in the view of Easterners, home to assorted ruffians and hangers-on from the Mexican era. The Native American culture of the West was seen as backward, though its artifacts were often shipped off to Eastern museums.

"He imagined a place here that would define what the Southwest was," Possert said.

Lummis collected memorabilia from early California, including furniture that belonged to the Sepulveda family of Californio ranchers and the flag that John C. Fremont carried on his expeditions into Mexican California. He made the first known recordings of California Spanish folk songs.

But the core of his collection is Native American artifacts, many of which he purchased during his travels across the West.

"It's the second-largest collection of Native American art extant in the world," said Steven Karr, who oversees the Southwest Museum collection for the Autry. Lummis died in 1928, but subsequent generations added to the museum's trove.

"The collection outgrew this building before World War II," Karr said.

When the Autry merged with the Southwest Museum, it inherited not just a priceless art collection but also a massive headache.

Most of the objects were stored inside the Southwest Museum's leaky tower, accessible only via a winding staircase Lummis called the caracol, a Spanish word for spiral or shell. The tower's roof leaked, and after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it threatened to separate from the rest of the building.

"Our priority was just to get the collection out of there in order to save it," Karr said.

Today, the Southwest Museum's galleries are being used for storage. The Autry has invested in new air conditioning systems, and a freezer whose deep cold is used to kill the mold and insects that might otherwise destroy fragile, century-old objects made of wood, grasses, feathers and leather.

It's the largest preservation of Native American artifacts currently underway in the United States.

Small parts of the collection are displayed at the Autry. You can currently see 250 of the collection's 14,000 baskets in the Autry's "Art of Native American Basketry" exhibit.

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