February 23, 2016

Photo Essay: A Tunnel Walk Into LA's First Museum

I first visited the Southwest Museum of the American Indian (as it was then called) back in 2012—when I realized that there wasn't much to see there, except for the building itself.

Most of its collection of Native American art and artifacts had been moved over to The Autry museum, or put into storage.

At least back then, the Hopi Trail was open so you could meander your way to the top of the hill through the gardens...

...especially because the historic "tunnel" entrance was closed.

The museum itself hasn't been open much since The Autry took over its operations in 2003, but even on Saturdays when the galleries up the hill have been open...

... the tunnel entrance (known as the "Maya Portal," whose design was based on the Casa de Monjas at the Chichen-Itza historic site in the Mexican state of Yucatán) generally has not.

But now, the tunnel—originally built into the hillside below the museum in 1920 for pedestrian access—has reopened, though only temporarily.

It's all for a gallery show appropriately called "Tunnel Entrance"... which each of the tunnel's 20 niches along its 224 feet of length are outfitted with sculptural pieces...

...that feel like items left behind by a Blue Man Group training workshop.

But of course the tunnel should open for art's sake, since it was art that originally adorned those niches.

Between 1920 and 1942, the art that resided here was a series of papier-mâché dioramas...

...that depicted various scenes of Native American cultures from North to South America.

It was a fitting way to enter a museum devoted to telling the story of the American Indian...

...but the tunnel became leaky during a wet winter season ...

...and so The Autry scooped up the dioramas were sent them into storage...

...perhaps never to be seen again.

The "Historic Southwest Museum" (which I guess is what they're calling it now) is considered LA's first museum...

...known as "The Getty" of its time—the "Museum on the Hill."

It was co-founded in 1914 by Charles Lummis—an eccentric, a wanderer, and a newsman who'd walked from Ohio to LA to become an editor of the LA Times.

The bulk of the artifacts in the collection were his, acquired throughout the American Southwest and South America... a time when no one much cared to put that sort of thing in a museum.

Today, although the galleries aren't much to speak of, the museum continues a mission of archaeology...

...and also houses a research library.

Unfortunately, most people probably only know of the Southwest Museum as something they see off of the 110 Freeway—a place to drive past but not necessarily walk into.

When it was originally dug out of the hillside, the tunnel entrance (and its elevator) made it a lot easier to get to the museum; but the Hopi Trail, when it was open, allowed those who could to "climb to knowledge."

Just over a year ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched a campaign in support of the Southwest Museum, which it considers "underutilized" despite its historical significance and landmark status. The fact is, it's more or less been closed for over 10 years, and most people don't even know that it's open for a few hours on Saturdays.

It has the architectural pedigree of much more famous and much more utilized buildings in LA, having been designed by the same architects as The Bradbury Building, the Wilshire Ebell, and the Automobile Club of Southern California headquarters in West Adams—all of which can be enjoyed by the public in some way or another, and not from afar.

The tunnel art exhibit is open this week and then...who knows?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Built into a Butte
Photo Essay: Lummis' House, Built of a River Bed

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