February 8, 2015

Dr. Kathleen Whitaker, Former Chief Curator of Los Angeles' Southwest Museum of the American Indian, on the site's designation as "National Treasure"

The saga continues for the venerable, 115 year-old Southwest Museum of the American Indian (SWM), and it’s Casa de Adobe, (founded in 1914) a reconstruction of a Spanish colonial home - both designated herein as The Southwest Museum Site.

A public announcement made on January 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, CA revealed the site has been designated a National Treasure  by The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP),  a privately funded, non-profit Washington, D.C.-based organization.  With this declaration it is hoped by many that there will be a brighter future for the oldest, but neglected museum.

The Treasure designation is part of a NTHP program that identifies historically significant American landmarks facing actual or imminent threat of deterioration and loss of use.  Such sites are selected based on: integrity, contribution to Americas diverse history, and preservation strategies that can be applied to other sites.  It is hoped by the NTHP and its partners - the Autry National Center (that retains stewardship of the museum), and Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillos office - this recognition will bring national attention to the financially depleted Southwest Museum and create new interest in funding from sources within and beyond the local community.  A remapping of the site is their goal.

The Southwest Museum was founded in 1907 by Charles Fletcher Lummis, an American ethnologist and later the city editor for The Los Angeles Times.  It grew from the vastness of Los Angeles cultural diversity, educational and environmental ideologies.  For many, the museums buildings with their revival mission and Californiano hacienda style architecture carry an identity rooted in California history.  And the renowned collection it once housed gives focus to a Native American and Hispanic aesthetic bringing forth the themes and intentions of culture that the public has come to expect.  Moreover, is generally acknowledged that the sites first acts of occupation as a museum have left a core of connection in the memory of, and identity with the people of Southern California.

Barbara Pahl, who heads the regional district for National Trust for Historic Preservation acknowledged: The amount of passion that has surrounded this museum makes it clear how significant and special it is.  This is a very important place and deserves a future. (NTHP meeting held at SWM. 1/22/15)

At the January 22 meeting, Pahl highlighted four recurring themes and opportunities the partnership will seek, including: 1) Establish a framework and parameters, 2) Identify community priorities and market analysis, 3) Build a consensus around a shared vision, and 4) Develop a business plan for the shared vision.  Toward these goals, and over the next 18 months the NTHP, The Autry National Center, and Councilman Gil Cedillos office in concert with the community, will gather ideas, and build a general agreement regarding a future use for the Southwest Museum Site. 

There was no clarity as to who would fund this new partnership study; and the organizers did not open the meeting to discussion, nor solicit questions from the audience.  Autry president W. Richard West, Jr. did note, however, that funding and other resources is something well find out as we go along (NTHP meeting held at SWM, 1/22/15). In addition, a broad-ranging compendium of discussants and organizers will be formed in association with this partnership, and the discussion will be open to all ideas with brainstorming and analysis of The Southwest Museum Sites many possible uses.  If individuals would like to contribute to the discussion, the following website address was provided for ones thoughts: www.treasureswm.org.

West also declared in a Los Angeles Times article (1/22/15) and again at the public meeting I see this [partnership] as an uplifting turning point in this saga that gets us out of the mired past and toward a collective and collaborative future.  It lifts us beyond where we have been, to get our sights on where we should end up.  He added that the Autry conglomerate has respect for the sites history and commitment to the Southwest Museums buildings and is looking forward to a sustainable future for this facility.  Mrs. Jackie Autry was not present at the meeting.  However in support of Wests remarks, two Autry board members Michael Heumann and Tom Lee were in attendance.

In addition there was a large turnout of supporters, critics, and skeptics that included members of the local community,  Occidental College president, Jonathan Veitch, Native American organization representatives and leaders, former Southwest Museum staff members, and the Highland Park Heritage Trust.  Carol Teutsch, a member of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition and Roundtable that has represented past community opposition to the closing of the Southwest Museum stated to the LA Times (1/22/15): Looking for solutions that are sustainable is something we welcome.  Our suggestion to the National Trust has been that [reviving a museum at the site] be the priority until its proved nonviable.  

Clearly, on the surface, the gesture to remap the Southwest Museum Site is well-meaning, offering new possible continuation and purpose for an aged site.  Yet in quiet, sidebar conversations by doubters at the January 22 meeting, it was suggested the action might be yet another smoke screen by the Autry National Center intended to discourage further opposition and litigation between them and the local residents of the Mount Washington/Highland Park environs, and Southwest Museum supporters.  A second concern, which was more to the point, was that the partners - based on history and past experience - are thought to not have the financial or other resources to address the current sites crisis and that additional meetings, studies and brainstorming may be further exercises in futility.  Beginning in the mid-1980s there were discussions between the Southwest Museum and the County of Los Angeles regarding a  recast of the museum.  Such discussions occurred again in 1992 when the Southwest Museum was contemplating a move from its present site, and this was later followed by several Blue Ribbon mayoral committees in the 1990s and early 2000.  All previous discussions, studies and brainstorming failed.

Underpinning this new announcement is the idea that any future use of the building site remains open to discussion, and the outcome might not include its original use as a museum.  It is this latter thought that led to an early contentious relationship between the local Mount Washington/Highland Park community Coalition, Southwest Museum supporters and the Autry National Center.  In 2003, shortly after the merger of the Southwest and Autry museums, the newly formed Autry National Center began shutting down the historic Los Angeles site, leaving the Braun Research Library open by appointment only.  To further fuel the growing dissension, there was a complete absorption of the Southwest Museums ethnographically and historically important Native American and Hispanic collections, the library, and ethnobotanical garden with little of it being exhibited, and all of it remaining underutilized.  Southwest Museum supporters cried foul.  

The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition viewed the commitment made by the Autry to operate the Southwest Museum. as a deliberate failure and a violation of the merger agreement.  The Autry, however, has completed one comprehensive conservation project on a portion of the museums collection, but says it lacks the resources to run the Mount Washington site as a full-time museum in tandem with the main Autry museum in Griffith Park (Los Angeles Times; 1/22/15). 

Moreover, exhibitions, operating hours, extensive staff reduction, cutbacks and shutdowns in programming at both facilities have curtailed any further efforts to operate the Southwest Museum Site.  Yet despite the depleted economic concerns cited by the Autry administration, they submitted plans to the City of Los Angeles to create a $175 million expansion plan for the Griffith Park Museum.  By 2009, the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition rallied significant City Council and other support. They filed a lawsuit that resulted in the City of Los Angeles rejecting the expansion unless the Autry reopened the Southwest Museum to full operation.  A stalemate resulted.  This created further vitriol where critics and some city overseers saw this as confirmation that the Autry would eventually abandon The Southwest Museum and The Casa de Adobe. 

In a reactive, almost half-hearted effort to create compromise, one gallery in the Southwest Museum was reopened in early 2013 offering a revamped Pueblo pottery exhibition that was originally curated in 1989.  This has now been on exhibit for a year and a half, and expects to remain on display through at least 2016-2017.  It is open to the public on Saturdays only.  The Casa de Adobe has been completely closed and its collection removed. The museums renowned Native American collection has also been moved to a newly purchased Autry National Center facility in Burbank, CA  - now currently under renovation.  

Despite these past frictions, the meeting postured a positive outlook.  It will be interesting to follow the transactions and negotiations in the next 18 months and it is always a positive sign when all the players are sincere and proactive - not merely symbolic.   It is hoped there will be a common attitude toward bringing together different sensibilities and knowledge, thereby enriching the Southwest Museum Site, not sending it into further disharmony and deterioration.  The Site must be given a new license to exist in reconciliation with the social and cultural needs of its surrounding community.  Over the years it has been no secret many would like it to see it carry forward cultural themes and concerns, and remain a domain of social interaction and community engagement.  

Kathleen Whitaker, PhD
Research Associate, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Former Director, Indian Arts Research Center School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, NM

Former Chief Curator, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, CA

The Los Angeles Time's article by Mike Boehm, "National preservation trust tabs Southwest Museum a national treasure", was published on January 22, 2015.