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Feb 23rd
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Home Places to Visit Museums Los Angeles' Southwest Museum of the American Indian Celebrates 100 Years With Cake, Punch and Controversy

Los Angeles' Southwest Museum of the American Indian Celebrates 100 Years With Cake, Punch and Controversy

Rescued by the Autry National Center in 2003, the Future Looks Bright for one of the World's Premier Collections of American Indian Artifacts

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With an abundance of two-layered birthday cake, gallons of punch, an American Indian hoop dancer, and a trio performing the music of early Spanish California -- the Sunday afternoon party on Oct. 21, 2007, proved to be a perfectly grand way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.

Just like friends gathering for any birthday party, there were plenty of smiles from those joining in the celebration for Los Angeles' oldest museum, along with shaking of hands, warm greetings and laughter.


"This celebration honors the past as well as looks ahead to the next one hundred years at the Southwest Museum," said Duane King, executive director of the Southwest Museum. "The Southwest Museum is a treasure in Los Angeles and we are thrilled to be joining with the community in celebrating this historic milestone."

And like a party thrown at their best friend's 100-year-old house, nobody snickered at the paint peeling off the walls, or smirked at the closed-off rooms, scaffolding and temporary plaster patches.

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian, founded in 1907 by Charles Lummis, is going through a major transformation. Recognized as holding a world-class collection of American Indian artifacts, art, historic photos and literature, the Southwest Museum's building is being rehabilitated.

Constructed in 1914, the museum (especially its Caracol Tower) suffered much damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Age, general deterioration and heavy rains over the years also added to the problem, especially to the elevator tower and the historic tunnel which provided pedestrian access. If all goes well, a repaired and refreshed museum building should be ready by 2011 or 2012.


But the story of the Southwest Museum and its future goes much deeper than physical repairs and cracked plaster. It's a story of a change in direction, a change of leadership, and a change in how the historic Southwest Museum structure itself will be used. Some of the museum's neighbors in the Mount Washington community of Los Angeles, northeast of downtown and near Pasadena, aren't happy about that last point.

Faced with a financial crisis, the Southwest Museum was rescued by the Autry National Center in 2003. Not only was the building crumbling, but much of the priceless collection was either damaged or at risk.

"There were boxes stacked on boxes," Pam Hannah, director of operations for the Southwest Museum, told OldWestNewWest.Com. "It was compressing the things that were inside. There were moccasins, for example, that were compressed half of their size. It was bad."

The collection is remarkable. There are more than 250,000 objects, including 11,000 pieces of pottery, 13,000 baskets, 1,900 textiles, and several other important items pertaining to the Native American in the West, and in particular, those in the Southwest. The museum's Indian baskets collection, for example, is the largest in the United States and spans from contemporary pieces all the way back to pre-puebloan bowls.


Since the Autry took over the Southwest Museum, public access to the building and its collection has been severely restricted.

"We first had to see what was there," Hannah said. "There's even a full-size tee-pee and a canoe in the collection. It's amazing what's there."

For the 100th anniversary party, one of the galleries was partially opened - displaying a very tiny hint of what's in the collection, including a beautiful handcrafted Southwest Kachina doll.

No one seems to be questioning the wisdom of having the Autry National Center step in to rescue the Southwest Museum; The Autry seemed a perfect fit.

Founded by Cowboy film actor, singer and business entrepreneur Gene Autry, the Autry National Center has become one of the foremost centers of research and preservation of the history of the American West.

Before it acquired the Southwest, the Autry was the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. When the Southwest Museum became a part of the Autry family (it also includes the Institute for the Study of the American West), the nonprofit giant took on the new name of the Autry National Center, and the Museum of Western Heritage became the Museum of the American West.

So far, ‘the Autry,' as it is simply called around Los Angeles, has poured in more than $6.5 million to save the collection and stabilize the Southwest Museum building. It expects to toss in another $1.5 million before this year's over.

Autry officials, a couple of Los Angeles City Council members, the city's mayor and other community leaders also have gotten together to help create a new nonprofit organization called the Southwest Society. It's proposed role will be to help raise funds and add to the visibility of the new Southwest Museum.


The society will also help raise funds for restoring the Casa de Adobe, a reproduction of an 1800s California ranch house. Built in 1918 using authentic adobe materials, it has also been damaged by weather and age, requiring substantial repairs.

There are a few ruffled feathers, however, and they focus on how Autry leaders plan to house and  display the collection, and their plans for the Southwest Museum building. For some, it's a tempest in a teapot. For others, it's a loss of the building's historic role.

"Our concern is that the Autry is changing it (the museum building) into a cultural center, and that only a small portion of the original galleries will be available for collection exhibit," Nichole Possert, co-chairperson of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, told OldWestNewWest.Com. "We want to keep a very vibrant Southwest Museum as a museum destination."

During its best years the Southwest Museum usually had four of its five main galleries open for collection exhibition. Under the Autry plan for a repaired Southwest Museum, only two galleries would be earmarked for collection exhibition, while the other galleries would be dedicated as space for cultural events.

Additionally, the Autry is planning a major expansion of its museum facilities near Los Angeles' Griffith Park where a proposed new building would provide room for the Lummis / Southwest Museum's Native American collection.

"It's a core disagreement," Possert said. "There's no reason why they need to build a new facility when they have a site (the Southwest Museum) that just needs reinvestment."

The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition has drawn up its own plans for an expanded facility at the Southwest Museum that would provide more room for collection exhibition, research and cultural events.

"With their plans to only have two galleries open for the collection, our concern is that it would be more like just an art gallery," Possert said. "People who really wanted to see the collection or do research would have to go to Griffith Park."

The Autry said the immediate goal is to save, preserve and restore the collection, and to save and refresh the museum building.

"That's our focus right  now," Hannah said.

But there is a bigger vision. According to the Autry National Center's vision for the future posted on its Web site:

"The Autry is embarking on an exciting plan to create a true national center for the American West, with campuses in Mt. Washington and Griffith Park. When this plan is fulfilled, Native American artifacts from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian will be exhibited alongside collections from the Museum of the American West in Griffith Park.

By expanding the Griffith Park campus, the Autry will create an integrated museum that will provide far greater access to larger segments of the collection, especially the renowned Southwest collection - most of which has been hidden from public view for decades."

One more thing. The name of the Southwest Museum building will change to the Southwest Museum Education and Cultural Center - or just Southwest Center.

While the 100th anniversary party was well underway, Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition members staged a protest rally on Marmion Way, just below the Southwest Museum. Protesters waved  signs to cars passing by, and people honked horns as they drove along. The mood was cordial, but seemed sincere. Protesters want the Southwest Museum not just repaired, but expanded as the real home for the Lummis legacy.

What would the founder, Charles Lummis, have to say? A look at his writings and diary entries might give both sides ammunition.

"It was decided that this museum shall be built where it ‘cannot be walked on'-on a hill, where it shall See and Be Seen," Lummis wrote in the magazine Out West, where he served as its editor. "Above and outside the smoke and dust and noise of metropolitan streets, and yet absolutely easy of access from any part of the city as it is or as it shall be."

"It was a marvel how truly it realized my dream," he wrote in his diary.

"The Southwest Museum should be worthy not only of this community today, but of this community a thousand years from now. (It) is intended to be laid out upon a sufficient scale for the Future Los Angeles," Lummis said. "This institution is to stand the test of all time." [Lummis' quotes courtesy of the Southwest Museum.]

Working from Lummis' desire for the creation of his museum "on the hill" on Mount Washington, and his vision for its role as a key element for "the Future of Los Angeles," both sides-given time-hopefully will find common ground.

Even as the debate continues, however, one thing is for certain: The Lummis collection of Native American art and culture is in very good hands and will remain a Los Angeles treasure that will "stand the test of time."


Getting to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian

While the galleries of the Southwest Museum are closed during the rebuilding, the museum store is open, and the museum does provide special events and displays at the site. For information on upcoming events, call (323) 221-2164.

Mt. Washington Address:
234 Museum Dr. Los Angeles, CA 90065

Hours Museum and Museum Store:
Saturdays and Sundays, noon. to 5 p.m.

Admission Tickets:
Admission to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian is free.

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