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Southwest Museum's conservation project draws closer to completion

While the facility wraps up its restoration of objects, officials plan to open on Saturdays for a peek at the results of a $9-million conservation effort.

May 13, 2012|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Anne Cusack / Los Angeles times
Anne Cusack / Los Angeles times (pictures-003/600 )

The pace is picking up on the massive conservation project in process at the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington. The end is almost in sight: Only 36,000 objects to go!

In 2003, when the poverty-stricken institution merged with the more affluent Museum of the American West under the umbrella of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park, the first priority was to save the Southwest's collection of about 250,000 Native American artworks and artifacts. Second only to the holdings of the National Museum of the American Indian inWashington, D.C., the collection had been inadequately housed for decades and further damaged by earthquakes, water and insects.

Just about every piece needed attention, so in 2006 the Southwest closed and turned its galleries into temporary collections-care facilities. Overloaded storage areas — including the historic building's seven-story tower, accessible only by a spiral staircase — were emptied as the painstaking process of cleaning, restoring, cataloging and repacking got underway.

"It's been monumental, just the quantity," LaLena Lewark, director of collections and conservation at the Autry, says of the $9-million project, funded by grants and private sources. And she expects the labor to continue through 2013, possibly into 2014.

But beginning this week, the Southwest will open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors will find collection highlights and an illustrated timeline of the museum's history displayed in the upper- and lower-level lobbies. Those who peer through the galleries' glass doors will gain insight into the nature and volume of the conservation effort. Behind-the-scenes tours will be offered periodically by reservation. The first one is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. June 9.

Much remains to be decided about the Southwest's future, but Daniel M. Finley, president and CEO of the Autry National Center, says it's time for a public update.

"The collection is a big part of L.A. history," he says. "What we have been doing for the last several years is the largest museum conservation effort in the country. We are winding down that work, so we want to bring back part of the collection. It preserves California history, American Indian history, the history of native people all the way from Alaska to Central America. It's extraordinarily broad and deep."

The lobby exhibition will feature archaeological finds from Southwest-sponsored expeditions, along with items that pose conservation challenges, such as a translucent pouch fashioned from caribou heart membrane.

Kim Walters, the Southwest's curator and interim director, has filled other cases with distinctive ceramic and stone works, including a Pueblo water jar in the shape of a gourd and a bowl carved of steatite from Catalina Island.

Small as it is, the show is a reminder of the museum's rich holdings. Two upcoming exhibitions will offer larger samplings. About 180 of the Southwest's 700 Hopi Katsina dolls will go on view June 29 at the Autry. Next year, "400 Years of Pueblo Pottery" will be reinstalled at the Southwest, in the arched wing known as Sprague Hall.

For now, though, the grand exhibition hall is an eerily dark storeroom, filled almost floor to ceiling with archaeological artifacts, ethnographic objects and ceramics. Towering rows of shelves are lined with freshly packed, precisely labeled boxes and draped with plastic sheeting. The new archival containers bear silent testimony to the vast quantity of work that has been done. Old cardboard boxes crammed with small artifacts await their turn, as do large pots and baskets.

The project began soon after the merger, says Lewark, wending her way through the aisles in Sprague Hall. But at first, while funds were being secured, a few staff members processed 2,000 to 3,000 objects a year. The current cadre of two conservators and 13 collections-management specialists is far more productive. A phase of the project that began in September 2010 encompasses 157,000 pieces, 145,000 of which are finished, she says. When the remaining 12,000 objects have been dealt with, work will begin on 14,000 baskets and the final 10,000 archaeological items.

Ceramics and other works stored in the museum's tower were treated first because that area had suffered severe water damage and problems with light, insects and rodents. The basket collection — which Finley calls "the best there is" — was put on hold because it was tucked away in a compact storage system. But now an inventory of the baskets and their general condition is underway. The conservators are also developing a glossary of basket terminology and figuring out packing methods.

Much of the conservation process adheres to a standard system of examining, cleaning, documenting, photographing, bar-coding, labeling and building a complete database. But mounts that secure objects in boxes must be customized. And aging artworks have lots of special needs.

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