Southwest Museum’s conservation project draws closer to completion


The pace is picking up on the massive conservation project in process at the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington. The end is almost in sight: Only 36,000 objects to go!

In 2003, when the poverty-stricken institution merged with the more affluent Museum of the American West under the umbrella of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park, the first priority was to save the Southwest’s collection of about 250,000 Native American artworks and artifacts. Second only to the holdings of the National Museum of the American Indian inWashington, D.C., the collection had been inadequately housed for decades and further damaged by earthquakes, water and insects.

Just about every piece needed attention, so in 2006 the Southwest closed and turned its galleries into temporary collections-care facilities. Overloaded storage areas — including the historic building’s seven-story tower, accessible only by a spiral staircase — were emptied as the painstaking process of cleaning, restoring, cataloging and repacking got underway.


“It’s been monumental, just the quantity,” LaLena Lewark, director of collections and conservation at the Autry, says of the $9-million project, funded by grants and private sources. And she expects the labor to continue through 2013, possibly into 2014.

But beginning this week, the Southwest will open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors will find collection highlights and an illustrated timeline of the museum’s history displayed in the upper- and lower-level lobbies. Those who peer through the galleries’ glass doors will gain insight into the nature and volume of the conservation effort. Behind-the-scenes tours will be offered periodically by reservation. The first one is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. June 9.

Much remains to be decided about the Southwest’s future, but Daniel M. Finley, president and CEO of the Autry National Center, says it’s time for a public update.

“The collection is a big part of L.A. history,” he says. “What we have been doing for the last several years is the largest museum conservation effort in the country. We are winding down that work, so we want to bring back part of the collection. It preserves California history, American Indian history, the history of native people all the way from Alaska to Central America. It’s extraordinarily broad and deep.”

The lobby exhibition will feature archaeological finds from Southwest-sponsored expeditions, along with items that pose conservation challenges, such as a translucent pouch fashioned from caribou heart membrane.

Kim Walters, the Southwest’s curator and interim director, has filled other cases with distinctive ceramic and stone works, including a Pueblo water jar in the shape of a gourd and a bowl carved of steatite from Catalina Island.

Small as it is, the show is a reminder of the museum’s rich holdings. Two upcoming exhibitions will offer larger samplings. About 180 of the Southwest’s 700 Hopi Katsina dolls will go on view June 29 at the Autry. Next year, “400 Years of Pueblo Pottery” will be reinstalled at the Southwest, in the arched wing known as Sprague Hall.

For now, though, the grand exhibition hall is an eerily dark storeroom, filled almost floor to ceiling with archaeological artifacts, ethnographic objects and ceramics. Towering rows of shelves are lined with freshly packed, precisely labeled boxes and draped with plastic sheeting. The new archival containers bear silent testimony to the vast quantity of work that has been done. Old cardboard boxes crammed with small artifacts await their turn, as do large pots and baskets.

The project began soon after the merger, says Lewark, wending her way through the aisles in Sprague Hall. But at first, while funds were being secured, a few staff members processed 2,000 to 3,000 objects a year. The current cadre of two conservators and 13 collections-management specialists is far more productive. A phase of the project that began in September 2010 encompasses 157,000 pieces, 145,000 of which are finished, she says. When the remaining 12,000 objects have been dealt with, work will begin on 14,000 baskets and the final 10,000 archaeological items.

Ceramics and other works stored in the museum’s tower were treated first because that area had suffered severe water damage and problems with light, insects and rodents. The basket collection — which Finley calls “the best there is” — was put on hold because it was tucked away in a compact storage system. But now an inventory of the baskets and their general condition is underway. The conservators are also developing a glossary of basket terminology and figuring out packing methods.

Much of the conservation process adheres to a standard system of examining, cleaning, documenting, photographing, bar-coding, labeling and building a complete database. But mounts that secure objects in boxes must be customized. And aging artworks have lots of special needs.

On a recent morning, Katsina dolls were doing time in a walk-in freezer — a treatment used to kill pests that attack objects made of organic materials. Other works were getting individual attention. To reattach painted details that had fallen off an owl-shaped Navajo mask, conservator Angela McGrew had to find an adhesive that would hold the paint without discoloring the mask. Then she shot a batch of close-up photos and spliced them together to create a complete document of her work.

A few weeks earlier, assistant conservator Ozge Gencay Ustun patiently sorted fragments of two broken ceramic pots that had been packed together and reconstructed both works. With that job done, she was repairing cracks in boldly patterned clay vessels and stabilizing a little tableau of clay figures and animals. Nearby, broken pieces of two brightly painted ceremonial wands were clamped together while glue dried.

When the massive undertaking is finished, works not on display will be transferred to the new Autry Resource Center, a 100,000-square-foot research and storage facility under construction in Burbank. The Southwest doesn’t have enough storage space, and it would be too costly to upgrade the old building into a temperature-and-humidity-controlled facility impervious to leaks, bugs and rodents, museum officials say.

The Los Angeles architectural firm Chu+Gooding has designed the new two-story building, about 2.5 miles from Griffith Park, to house 500,000 pieces from the museums’ collections in optimal conditions, along with conservation laboratories and research libraries.

“The plan,” Lewark says, “is not to have everything packed forever. Once the ARC [Autry Resource Center] is finished, we will start the unpacking process. That will be monumental as well, but that’s our goal. When you go into the ARC, you will see amazing objects, not just boxes. One thing I am excited about is that the space is being laid out to accommodate both collections and that the native community, researchers and students will have access to them.” A reading room will be open to the public by appointment.

Completion of the conservation project will be a giant step for the Southwest. Chartered in 1907 and opened in 1914, the museum had been underfunded for years when it joined the Autry. But the merger sparked ongoing fears that the Southwest would be shuttered. Demands for the Autry to sign a legally binding agreement to operate the Southwest as a fully functioning museum in perpetuity eventually led the Autry to stop seeking city approval of a proposed expansion in Griffith Park and look for space elsewhere.

Finley says he expects half of the Autry Resource Center to open at the end of the year. Funds have yet to be raised to complete the second phase.

“A museum at its soul is about the care of a collection,” he says. “The new facility will give us a state-of-the-art location to preserve that collection for posterity. It will also allow us to grow the collection and make it even better.”