Why LA’s Southwest Museum Matters

southwest museumOn June 9, 2012, the Autry National Center opened the Southwest Museum of the American Indian for a few hours and invited members of the community to a presentation on museum history, to observe conservation work, and to take a tour of the tower and other areas of the museum.  It was a fascinating experience and long overdue.  Now passing by the Southwest Museum daily, it’s disheartening to see the doors always closed.

We have been collectively residents of Mt. Washington for over 30 years and life-long Angelenos.  We remember when school buses and tours of the museum were a constant sight.  Yes, they blocked traffic and belched exhaust, but we were okay with it because children, residents and tourists were getting important history in a real Los Angeles neighborhood.  When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority opened the Gold Line and named the stop “Southwest Museum”, we were excited and jumped for joy.

We were hopeful when it was announced that the Southwest Museum would re-open this June, if only for a fleeting few hours.  Once we entered the Museum, however, hope gave way to horror.  Perhaps our therapist can help with our self diagnosed “Southwest Museum Depression” syndrome.  The Museum’s long history of promises and letdown continues.

A Bit of History

Those of you reading this might have different levels of information and/or historical background of the Southwest Museum and its history.  According to an exhibit at the Southwest Museum Charles Fletcher Lummis:

“Founded the Southwest Museum to study, preserve, and celebrate the indigenous and Hispanic cultures of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.  The Southwest Museum, established in 1907, is the oldest museum in Los Angeles.”

“Between 1932 and 1956, the Southwest Museum focused its attention on the Native peoples west of the Mississippi, as well as Mexico and Central America.  The Museum also supported archeological expeditions to California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.  Today, the museum is steward to a priceless and incomparable collection of Native American art and artifacts with over 350,000 objects representing the life and cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.”

While we were excited to listen to the presentation of the history of the museum, the event had a disturbing element to it.  As you will see, we soon realized that asking too many questions was not looked upon favorably.

Disturbing Why?

We’ve been to the Southwest Museum dozens of times for presentations, exhibits, and the Native American Market Place over the years.  This time, passing through the entrance tunnel off of Museum Drive was depressing.  Our first thought was the Twilight Zone.  Imagine a dark tunnel with nothing in it.  You ask yourself, “Where did everything go?”  Unlike a TV show, there was no commercial to assure everything was OK.  As we stared down the long hallway, every diomrama, frame and glass was gone!  As the presentation started, citizens began asking where everything had gone, to which the Staff curtly stated everything was taken away due to water damage.  But I thought to myself, everything had to go?  The Museum has a 350,000 piece collection, why weren’t the “damaged” items replaced?  This didn’t look like restoration, this looked like relocation.

More Disturbing…..

Sitting through the presentation on the history of the Southwest Museum, it was exciting to see all of the old pictures.  The presenter was knowledgeable and had worked in the Museum for decades and was polite enough.  During a brief question and answer session someone asked, “What is the long-term vision for the museum?”  The reply, in short, was that the artifacts will be removed and “something” will happen to the site – including the possibility of being sold.   Suddenly we started paying more attention.  Did a representative of the museum just say the Southwest Museum is for sale?  He sure did.

Then the question was asked, “Isn’t it important to have the Southwest Museum in a local neighborhood?  Especially since the Southwest Museum is a national landmark and has been at its current location for 100 years?”  The response was shocking.  The representative stated “When persons attend the Autry in Griffith Park, they feel more comfortable than coming here.”  Did she just say what we think she said?   The Autry National Museum doesn’t appear to like being in Northeast Los Angeles because we are a mixed community.  Some are wealthy residents and some working class.  Some might even call it code for “Too Latino.”   While we are proud of this peaceful coexistence, the Autry is not.  Numb, we sat through the remainder of the presentation feeling like an unwanted stranger in our own community.

The Episode of “V”:

Some of you may remember the television show “V” from the 1980’s.  This is where aliens arrive on Earth and act as though they are friendly.  Then one rebel human discovers the aliens are preparing humans for consumption.  This was the feeling watching the Autry preparing to ship the artifacts of the Southwest Museum (see picture). Don’t get us wrong, the artifacts were treated perfectly.  They are simply no longer for the community.  According to the Autry representative, they will be taken to a facility in Burbank for storage.  Only researchers with “special” privileges will be able to look at them.

When asked who was funding this project, one staff member introduced himself as being “FEMA funded.”  FEMA stands for Federal Emergency Management Agency which funds emergency programs.  The representative was asked why FEMA was funding this project.  The response was Orwellian, rather than answering the questions, the representative asked, “Who are you?”  To which the response was, “I am a citizen.”  The representative  walked away.  The question remains, if the Autry plans on leaving and taking the collection and doesn’t have a long range plan for the Southwest Museum, what are they receiving funding for?  Residents and visitors have the right to know.

What the Southwest Museum Should Be

Our visit to the Southwest Museum tour and the Autry’s apparent silent acquisition of the Southwest’s entire collection led us to believe no one knows what is going on at the Southwest Museum.  They are prepping artifacts to take and it appears that no thought is being given to the building.  Some might ask who cares if the Southwest Museum remains in Northeast Los Angeles?  The reality is the Southwest Museum and its contents are the heritage of the Northeast communities, not just of Los Angeles.  Our students have a right to the Southwest Museum and its history made part of the academic curriculum.  This does not only mean Mt. Washington Elementary School where our own children attend, but Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, Glassell Park, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Sycamore, Montecito Heights and every other neighborhood that we apologize for not mentioning.

If you take a tour of the museum, which we recommend you do, you’ll quickly realize the Southwest Museum is a monument which was Los Angeles’ first Latino museum.  The Southwest Museum should be generating over 100 jobs and internships.  It should be open for events and a major draw to our community, increasing property values and decreasing our willingness to move to other less historical neighborhoods.  Abandoning the Southwest Museum the way the Autry Museum has would be like living in Cairo or Mexico City and putting dirt over the pyramids because you think they’re ugly.  As silly as this might sound, this is what is occurring right now at the Southwest Museum.

Just like those living outside of Cairo and Mexico City, the Southwest Museum was meant to be a regional museum that focused on Native American and Latin American cultures.  Charles Lummis built the Southwest Museum outside of the local art establishment because he believed culture should be democratic in its reach, not dictatorial in its absence.

The Southwest Museum has billions of dollars worth of artifacts.  Yes, we said billions of dollars worth of assets that include pottery collections and artifacts from throughout this hemisphere that are the legacy of all of us.  Everyone coming to Los Angeles should have a visit to the Southwest Museum and its tower, with its unique stairway and beautiful views, on their “To Do” list.  Just as anyone going to New York would visit the Empire State Building.

It is not right that the Autry is preparing to take the 350,000 collection away from our neighborhood because we are either too poor or too Latino.  They have no right to simply leave us with an empty shell of a building that many in our community could be working in.   Our generation will fight back.

Are we being righteous?

There might be some that hear a sense of righteousness in our words.   A sense that we believe we are right and the Autry is wrong.  History will be the judge.  The Board of Directors of the Southwest Museum failed Los Angeles in 2002 by agreeing to be taken over by the Autry.  The question for this generation is “will the next generation laud us for protecting their inheritance or will they curse our existence the way we are judging the Board of The Southwest Museum for having failed to protect the museum for this generation?”

by Gabriel Buelna and Fernando J. Orozco

Gabriel Buelna, PhD, MSW is a faculty member at Cal State Northridge and resident of Mt. Washington. gbuelna@sbcglobal.net

Fernando J. Orozco is President of Friends of Mt. Washington Elementary School and the Eagle Rock Magnet Steering Committee. zborn@me.com

An earlier version of this article was originally printed in the Mt. Washington Association Newsletter.

Separate Special Note:

Published by the LA Progressive on July 28, 2012
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About Fernando J. Orozco and Gabriel Buelna

Gabriel Buelna, PhD, MSW is a faculty member at Cal State Northridge and resident of Mt. Washington.

Fernando J. Orozco is President of Friends of Mt. Washington Elementary School and the Eagle Rock Magnet Steering Committee.