Opinion: L.A. needs a museum honoring L.A.

The Southwest Museum, in northeast L.A., now operated by the Autry National Center, celebrates its centennial this year.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

How often do I have to say this? At least once more, it seems.

The city of Los Angeles needs a Museum of the City of Los Angeles.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has just announced his “Great Streets Initiative” — in Paris, they’d promote them as “grand boulevards,” but we have to start somewhere. There’s one “great street” in each of the 15 council districts, but this is one city, and one city that needs something that other cities have, even cities far less fabulous than L.A.


A museum of ourselves.

Chicago has one, and Paris, New York, London, San Francisco, Boston, Philly. And Cincinnati. And Savannah, Ga. So what are we, chopped empanadas?

Oh, L.A. has had loads of museums, beyond the big cultural ones. Some have come and gone, some still flourish. We’ve had a strippers’ museum and hall of fame, a banana museum, a museum of feet and toes, a makeup museum. We once had an underwear museum — at Frederick’s of Hollywood — but once Madonna’s bustier got looted during the riots, it was only a matter of time before that museum hung up its unmentionables.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars outfit, is building a grand, vast new museum, and it too is overdue. But Hollywood isn’t L.A., it’s just another neighborhood, not a city unto itself. L.A. is the place.

L.A. has a riotous, inspiring, shameful, bloody, charmed, mystifying, rip-snorting story to tell, but like the town itself, the tale and its artifacts have been split up, balkanized and distributed hither and yon, among places like the county Natural History Museum, the Huntington’s excellent collections, some great ethnic museums and more.

So I am once again pitching the mayor — I think I’m on my third mayor with this now — to give the city one museum in which to tell our city story.

But where?

Where else: The magnificent castle of a place, the Southwest Museum, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

Its collection of Southwest and Native American artifacts is, or at least was, matchless. The Autry National Center, headquartered in Griffith Park, took over the Southwest a dozen years ago, and since then it has been regarded rather like a glamorous but crumbling storage unit.

It needs a lot of rehab. It needs civic money and civic oomph, and a new mission — as the Museum of the City of Los Angeles. It sits above historic Highland Park, it was the city’s first museum, and it was started by one of L.A.’s founding characters, the splendiferous Charles Lummis. It’s perfect. It even has a Metro stop already named for it.

It’s embarrassing that L.A. lets so many others tell its story, that it has no place to tell its own. Mr. Mayor, remedy this. Let the exhibits be like L.A. itself — cheeky, thoughtful, poignant, witty, aggressively tech-to-date, and ready to open in 2019, when L.A. officially turns 250 years old.

And I’ll offer up an amnesty to whoever brings back what ought to be a very choice exhibit: Madonna’s bustier.