It’s been more than a century since journalist, anthropologist and Indian rights activist Charles E. Lummis began his quest to open the city of Los Angeles’ first museum, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. On Saturday, the 100-year anniversary of the fulfillment of his vision will be celebrated in Mount Washington, atop the same hill where the Museum has stood overlooking the City of Angels since 1914.
First opened in 1907 in downtown L.A., the Southwest Museum moved in 1914 to the 37-acre site in Mount Washington.
Today, it is considered a cultural-historical monument, and is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and the California Register of Historic Places. The City of Los Angeles Historical Cultural Monuments includes both the Southwest Museum building and Braun Library among its listings.
Los Angeles’ oldest museum is now owned by the Autry National Center, the result of a 2003 merger intended to save the historic site from closing after years of financial woes and deterioration of the Museum’s iconic structure and vast collections of Native American, pre-Hispanic, Spanish colonial, Latino, and Western American art and artifacts.
But for the last decade, the Museum has remained largely closed, in part to allow for repairs to the facility and archiving of the collections, which have now been moved to the Autry Center in Griffith Park and an offsite storage facility in Burbank.
Stacy Lieberman, vice president of communication and visitor experience for the Autry, says Saturday’s centennial celebration will focus on the Museum’s unique architecture and the history of its founder Charles E. Lummis, rather than Museum’s extensive collections.
The event, much of which is free and open to the public, will also include a discussion on possible future uses for the facility, which could include it being turned into a multicultural community center, with conference rooms used for education and cultural purposes. A restaurant, community garden and limited gallery exhibits are some of the options being floated.
Lea este artículo en Español: El Museo Southwest Celebra Su Centenario
For some people, however, the 100-year milestone is bittersweet. They say it’s ironic that the Autry would be celebrating the 100-year anniversary of a museum that stopped fully operating about 10 years—now opening its doors to the public only on Saturdays.
“Do you know we have a whole generation of young kids who haven’t been able to visit the Southwest Museum?” John Nese, the owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop told EGP. “They don’t know the history.” He was referring to the generations of Los Angeles area school children who in years past learned about the history and culture of Native Americans and the U.S. Southwest through field trips to the Southwest Museum.
Nese is a member of Friends of the Southwest Museum, a coalition of individuals and groups that has for years been fighting to force the Autry to reopen the Mount Washington site as a fully functioning museum. They believe the Autry has violated the terms of the merger by refusing to keep the Museum open and to exhibit the artwork and artifacts at the Mount Washington site.
Ann Walnum co-founded the Friends group, and told EGP she’s not happy about the Autry’s plan for the centennial celebration or the future of the Southwest Museum. “[The Autry] has no intention to have the Southwest operate as a museum again,” she said.
Walnum says the Autry took about 85% of the Southwest collection “to safely store them” and “promised” to return the collection of about 238,000 Native-American artifacts—the biggest and most important in the U.S.— when funds were available to renovate the Museum.
It didn’t happen, she said.
As a result, the Museum’s future has been mired in controversy. Protests, petitions and lawsuits have been used to try to force the Autry to “live up to the terms of the agreement,” according to Walnum. Elected officials have expressed support for returning the Museum to full operation, using a variety of tactics to force the Autry’s hand, to no avail.
Lieberman says the issue is not the cost of reopening the Museum, but “sustainability.”
She said even if the $25 to $41 million to rehabilitate the site could be raised, the money is not there to keep it open and functioning as a modern day museum. “The museum was not financially sustainable” before and probably would not be in the future, she told EGP.
“Hopefully, in a few months we will come to a decision” about what the building should be used for, she said.
Nese on the other hand thinks money to support the Museum could be raised by exhibiting the collections in other places, which he says has not been done in the last 12 or so years.
“Europeans and other ethnicities are dying to see [Native-American] history,” just as “We get exited to see exhibits from other countries, such as the Egyptians,” he said.
However, according to Lieberman, “the collection was in disrepair and is currently in a proper storage” area, but not yet built to be moved out. The Autry hopes its Burbank facility will eventually become “a destination where students, scholars, artists, tribal representatives and the broader public” will have access to the history of the American West.
In the meantime, Lieberman emphasized that the 100th year anniversary celebration is not exactly about the museum, but of the building. Councilman Gil Cedillo CD-1 and Autry President W. Richard West Jr. will be honoring the site.
Exhibits will include historical archival material on view at the Braun Research Library, and creative dioramas by students from Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts and Franklin High School in the tunnel at the Museum Drive level. The “Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery” exhibit, featuring more than 100 pieces of rare ceramics from the Autry’s Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, traces the history of Pueblo pottery following sixteenth-century Spanish colonization to the present.
The museum will be open Saturday from 10a.m. to 4p.m. For more information, visit the Autry Center website: theautry.org/exhibitions.