Southwest Museum’s prospects for festive 100th birthday are dim

The Southwest Museum in Mount Washington in northeast Los Angeles. Funding is an issue for the site, which will mark its centennial in 2014.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles’ oldest museum site, the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, is celebrating its centennial this year with the debut of a new entrance halland outdoor nature center, capping a full makeover that’s already yielded new halls for dinosaurs and mammals, and the return of the museum’s core domed 1913 building to its original glory.

But will there be any reason for festivities surrounding next year’s centennial of the Southwest Museum building in Mount Washington?

For the past ten years, the castle-like, hilltop structure has been like a very old aunt whose care is a strain on the family, with different factions fighting over what should be done, and who should pay.


Legally, the Southwest is the obligation of the Autry National Center of the American West. The Autry acquired the building and its prized collection of Native American artifacts at the end of 2002, after the Southwest Museum’s leaders decided a merger was the only way out of dire financial difficulties.

Over the past decade, neighborhood groups that cherish the Southwest Museum and believe it’s important to northeast L.A.’s economic as well as cultural health have tried to compel the Autry to commit to restoring the site to full-bore operations.

In two 2011 lawsuits that were dismissed in rulings that have been appealed, homeowner groups tried to force the city to rescind its approval of renovations to the Autry’s main museum on city land in Griffith Park. They argued that the project should not proceed until the Autry also guarantees a full revival of the Southwest Museum site.

The Autry’s new president, W. Richard West Jr., a Cheyenne tribe member who was the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, is well acquainted with the Southwest Museum’s significance and its problems: In the early 2000s Duane King, who’d become the Southwest Museum’s director after serving under West at the NMAI, approached his old boss to see if the Smithsonian might be able to help rescue the Southwest.

(Click here for a profile of West.)

West said the NMAI couldn’t take on the project then, and the Autry can’t go it alone now. The Autry has spent about $15 million for structural improvements and a comprehensive conservation effort to return the Southwest’s collection to mint condition, West said. Renovations to Sprague Hall, a 2,200-square-foot arched wing, will allow the first exhibition at the Southwest site since 2006 to open later this year.

City engineers are currently assessing the cost of remaining structural needs, which are assumed to be in the tens of millions. Another consideration would be paying for ongoing operations once the building was restored to full capacity. In 2001-02, its last full year of independent operation, the Southwest Museum spent the current equivalent of $2.2 million.

“The Autry is not in a position to do that itself,” West said. “It’s cold, hard, financial reality.”

City Council member Ed Reyes, whose district includes the Southwest Museum, said that the site needs to be re-branded as a treasure for all of Southern California, instead of just a down-on-its-luck neighborhood attraction.

Reviving the Southwest “should not be viewed as a northeast L.A. issue, but a citywide and regional issue,” said Reyes, who’ll be stepping down this summer because of term limits. “You have this amazing facility, and the city needs to invest in its own history.”

While its building is a year younger than the Natural History Museum’s original core, the Southwest is L.A.’s oldest museum. Founder Charles Lummis and his allies launched it in 1907 and began showing Lummis’ collection of Native American artifacts at other sites while raising money to buy land and build on it.

Reyes thinks the Southwest deserves the same consideration as Griffith Park Observatory, which underwent a $93 million renovation and expansion completed in 2006, with public bond money covering 72% of the cost and the rest raised privately.

Reyes hopes the legal issues will be settled, and the city, the Autry, and Southwest Museum advocates can start pulling together to advance it as a citywide cause. The City Council created a “working group” last year to bring the different interests together, but West said the Autry decided it couldn’t join discussions while the lawsuits to stall its Griffith Park renovations were still pending.

In Los Angeles, Reyes said, “we’re notorious for letting go of our past.” For Reyes, municipal pride demands not letting it happen again when it comes to L.A.’s first museum.


Richard West knows the territory in taking on the Autry museum

City Council creates ‘working group’ for Southwest Museum issues

Southwest Museum’s conservation project grows closer to completion