The room is dim and ominous: Faded soldiers' uniforms and a frayed American flag flown over Iwo Jima in the mid-1940s hang on a wall above a binder listing nearly all the San Fernando Valley residents who died in World War II.
Around the corner, it is bright and cheery, the citrus-colored walls lined with crisp black-and-white photographs. In one, a young Elizabeth Montgomery poses in her gleaming, mid-century Valley home, cradling a newly purchased Toulouse-Lautrec painting; in another, Jayne Mansfield sits, pinup style, on a diving board in the high noon sun, inaugurating a line of Dream Pools.
The exhibits are on view at the new Museum of the San Fernando Valley, which opened last month. The museum has existed as a nomadic nonprofit for about 10 years but didn't have a bricks-and-mortar home until now. Its collection, housed on the second floor of a former realty office in Northridge, is modest, but about a dozen core volunteers have high hopes of elevating the cultural face of the Valley with a museum that showcases art and artifacts, produces new public artworks and presents a comprehensive history of the San Fernando Valley.
"I think that many of us have been trying to tell that story for a long time," says Paul Krekorian, L.A. City Council member for the Valley-based 2nd District. "Having a permanent location dedicated to that effort — not just a repository of items of historical interest but a place dedicated to helping people better understand the depth of that story — is very important."
Within the last year or so, three museums have opened in the Valley. Last fall saw the debut of the Valley Relics Museum in Chatsworth featuring private collector Tommy Gelinas' vintage signs, old photos and other historic artifacts. The Museum of the San Fernando Valley's new home opened Nov. 8. Days later, on Nov. 13, Discovery Cube Los Angeles, a 71,000-square-foot-children's science center, opened in the northeast Valley. Collectively they point to a cultural shift in the area, says Scott T. Sterling, president of the Museum of the SFV.
"We're on the verge of a cultural renaissance in the Valley," Sterling says. "It's happening really fast, and people are getting behind it. If we were a city, we'd be the fifth-largest population base in the U.S. The Valley needs a world-class museum."
One exhibit is about the Westmore family, whom Sterling calls "the first family of Hollywood makeup." Patriarch George Westmore created the first movie makeup department at Selig Studios in 1917, and the exhibit features the now-brittle wig worn by Rex Harrison in the 1967 film "Doctor Dolittle" as well as vintage lipsticks, creams and powders used in the 1930s on the faces of Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard.
A George Hurrell photo exhibit includes enormous portraits of classic silver-screen stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and John Barrymore.
A part of the museum, which is open three days a week, is devoted to architecture and fine art. One exhibit displays large photographs of Valley buildings throughout the decades, including Mission San Fernando Rey de España, Bob's Big Boy and Cal State Northridge's new recreation center. Another exhibit features oversized bronze, clay and wood busts of such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by Valley artist Henry Van Wolf.
Disparate historical societies have documented pockets of the Valley, such as the Little Landers Historical Society's Bolton Hall Museum in Rancho Tujunga, and the Valley is also home to significant fine-art murals such as Judy Baca's half mile-long "The Great Wall of Los Angeles," begun in 1976. But the Valley is not generally thought of a museum destination.
The Museum of the SFV wants not only to change that perception but also to add to the cultural landscape beyond. Paintings by local artists, including Barbara Katz Bierman and Roger Dolin, depicting the old Oakridge estate where Barbara Stanwyck lived, or other bits of Valley nostalgia may soon become outdoor public murals. One painting-turned-mural by Tim Cornelius depicting the old Zelzah train station already adorns the exterior of a building off of Reseda Boulevard; the museum is in the process of securing locations and raising the funds to have about six others installed, Sterling says.
The museum's public art initiative, Sterling says, "raises people's consciousness to care about their Valley so that beautification programs can occur; and when that happens, the economy gets better, people want to be here."
The museum is working on partnering with the Los Angeles Conservancy, hoping to serve as a local advocate for Valley murals in need of preservation. It also runs a speaker series as well as walking tours of Van Nuys and North Hollywood. With funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in collaboration with L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, it hosts a local "Big Read" every spring, a literacy event for children and adults.
In 2011, the museum launched "Narrating Lives: Oral Histories of the San Fernando Valley," conducting 28 video interviews with longtime Valley residents, including 100-year-old identical twins Inez Harries and Venice Shaw. A second round of interviews is underway. Bar codes on select museum artifacts, when scanned with a smartphone, take visitors to YouTube videos or clips from the oral history project, featuring residents' personal stories.
Most of what's on display at the museum is on loan from individuals, curator Kristine Keller says, but it does have additional holdings in its permanent collection stored off-site, "all cataloged and meticulously described and numbered but housed informally at our founder Jerry Fecht's home, the president's office as well as board members' homes."
The museum has a small board of about a dozen artists, history buffs and local business owners. Funding comes primarily from membership fees and donations. Sterling's construction company — his day job — paid for the museum's pre-opening renovations; paint and flooring were donated by local businesses.
Opening a physical space is a turning point, Sterling says. "It's hard to get people to donate to a museum that doesn't have walls," he says. "It was really important to get this space; it brings foot traffic and members."
The museum hopes to build its own home, and it's working toward expanding its hours to four days a week. The plan also includes opening satellite locations at historical and cultural locations throughout the Valley.
Keller says the collection may be small, but it is significant.
"The Valley is enormous, geographically, and makes up a third of the city, population-wise; but we're often seen as just this place on the other side of the hill," Keller says. "Sharing important stories about our value, keeping longtime residents aware of their history, teaching them something new — it's huge."
For non-Valley residents, "we're showing them we have interesting history and culture — and that it's continuing to evolve."