Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Museum For The City Of Los Angeles??,0,46375.column?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

LA Times columnist Patt Morrison proposed today that the Southwest Museum allow its old Highland Park building to be converted into a Museum for the City of Los Angeles. That would be theoretically possible since the Southwest Museum recently merged with the Autry Museum (AKA The Autry Museum of Western Heritage) and will build a new facility in Griffith Park by the existing Autry building. However, many members of the Southwest Musuem want the old facility to continue to house other activities and exhibits their museum.

But before we go into the pro's - and con's - of that proposal, I would like to address an error in Ms. Morrison's article. Yes! That's right!! The almost always infallible Pat Morrison has made an error!!!

However, this is fully understandable since the error is not about Los Angeles - of which she is the true font of all civic knowledge - but, rather, an egregious error about... New York City!

Morrison states that LA - unlike New York (and virtually every other city and even most... towns) - does not have its own museum dedicated to the city's history. Well, as it turns out, New York City does not have one museum dedicated to its history. New York City also does not have two museums dedicated to its history. Instead, New York City has THREE museums dedicated to the history of New York!

New York has the New York Historical Society Museum, the Museum of the City of New York and the South Street Seaport Museum which, while more specialized, does cover the bulk of the history of New York since its founding. There are also dozens of more specialized museums dedicated to local and more specific aspects of the history of New York.

Now to get back to the idea that the LA History Museum should be at the old Southwest Museum - there are a number of problems with that.

First, it is located in the middle of nowhere. No one is going to just stop by. It is not within walking distance of anything and it is not centrally located. That is one of the reasons why the Southwest Museum is moving from the spot. Second, it is too small. It is not even close to being the size we need to properly tell the stories of our city. Third, the building's layout, room sizes, and ceiling heights all make it an awkward fit for many of the exhibits other city museums have. Fourth, the major expansion that would be needed to make the building large enough, would not be acceptable in a residential neighborhood, nor would the traffic generated ( if it were to get the visitors a museum about LA should get) be appropriate for the neighborhood.

And, lastly - and perhaps, most importantly - it will take $25 million dollars just to bring a too small, out of the way, poorly configured building into code compliance. So even if one were to consider that location for an interim Museum of LA - the cost makes it far, far too expensive for a temporary use.

Plus a museum about LA needs to be in... LA! Not Highland Park! It also needs to be in the heart of the city. It also needs to be within walking distance of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in, work in or visit downtown every day. And it also needs to be within walking distance of the attractions that already bring tourists to LA and it needs to be within walking distance of where much of the history of LA took place.

Plus it needs a large enough space so that it will not have to move in the future. Now I had some time ago pushed for the old 1939 Art-Deco Cal Trans building to be our museum, but, alas! - the new Police Headquarters Building is now going to replace that. And Patt and I talked about that at a LA Times Festival of Books a few years ago.

So where do we put/build our Museum of the History of the City of Los Angeles? And how do we finance it? And what kind of business plan do we need to accomplish this? And where can we put a temporary museum for now?

Well, let the debate begin! And thanks to Patt Morrison for starting the subject!!


Bob Gelfand said...

The San Pedro Historical Society has a collection housed in the municipal building (aka "San Pedro City Hall") including photographs, books, and a large map going back about a hundred years. The Maritime Museum has exhibits on the history of the harbor area, among other things. There is also a Hollywood Museum, although I am not quite sure how well (or if) it is doing. We have a remarkable history of the premodern fauna in the La Brea Tar Pits exhibition center -- perhaps this is a little more historical than you intended, but it is a remarkable collection of natural history. The Bison collection run by Mark Wanamaker is a remarkable collection of old photos etc that include early Hollywood, downtown, etc. Mark recently gave a nice talk to Hollywood Heritage about the history of Union Station, including its origin as "old Chinatown." Charlie Chaplin shot scenes for "The Kid" right there. In other words, there are various smaller collections scattered around the area. Not the least of the historically important materials are the collections now housed in the UCLA Film Archive. Sony has an important collection of films that it circulates under the Sony Repertory group.

Curiously, it would be hard to imagine an area that has been better chronicled than Los Angeles over the past century, and the films that contain that story are stored in film archives all over the world. I have a friend who visits the Czech and Moscow film archives to search for previously lost silent film footage. The areas around Inglewood, Culver City, downtown, Sierra Madre, the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica are all recorded on film going back to before 1910. Even the Harbor is shown (much as the old photos still displayed around town show) in a 1913 one-reel drama directed by D.W. Griffith that was shown at a film festival last year.

Pinky said...

Actually, the Southwest Museum is walking distance from the Gold Line stop handily called "Southwest Museum." It's a lovely walk and a gorgeous building. The museum was in pretty bad financial trouble when the Autry Museum stepped in. But there's talk that the beautiful space might become a research library. As far as I'm concerned, it would make a terrific LA history museum.

Newsguy said...

The Southwest Museum is not in the middle of NOWHERE. As an earlier reader has pointed out, it is on a Gold Line Stop named after it, and right up against the foot of the Southwest museum. Mt. Washington is not in the Middle of Nowhere either. Anyone who lives here knows how lucky he is to be living on Mt. Washington, one of the premiere residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The cowboys should lose this battle against the Indians. The Southwest Museum should remain a repository of SW Native American Culture.