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Higher Ideals: The Original Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art

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All photos: Los Angeles Public Library
All photos: Los Angeles Public Library

Today, the Natural History Museum is a cavernous, seemingly never-ending space. Numerous additions have been constructed over the past one hundred years, and when walking from one exhibition hall to another, it is nearly impossible to tell where one building begins and another ends.

My personal favorites are the Gems and Minerals Hall (what can I say, I like sparkly things), and the archaic, somehow quaint North American Mammal Hall, with its dusty taxidermy buffaloes, polar bears, and jaguars forever roaming across painted landscapes.

Outside, in bustling Exposition Park, one can more clearly see the museum origins. The original 1913 Beaux Arts building, with its dome and elegant lines, faces the lovely rose garden. This building was for many years the only game in town -- the lone county museum, dedicated to history, science, and art. For decades, it housed most of Los Angeles County's artistic and scientific treasures, until the city's cultural life grew to such a degree that one roof could not contain them all.

From Crass to Cultural

With the opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Arts building at Exposition Park... collections of artistic, historic and scientific value have an adequate shelter and setting.

In the first decade of the 1900s, Los Angeles was at a crossroads. No longer wanting to be seen as a rough, uncultured, western town, the city's elite started a campaign to make Los Angeles a sophisticated metropolis that would rival the great cities on the East Coast.

One upright Sunday school teacher named William M. Bowen played his part by starting a yearlong crusade to clean up vice-ridden Agricultural Park. By 1909, government officials had cleared the park of its race track, gamblers, and prostitutes. Plans were drawn up for a "great park," which would include an Armory, an Exposition building, and a county museum all centered around a sunken garden. The architectural firm of Hudson and Munsell was commissioned to design the museum. Soon construction of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art was underway.

This would be the city's first proper museum. F.S. Daggett was named director of the building, and set about cobbling together the collections. The history department was given "valuable data, the library, souvenirs and relics" belonging to the Historical Society, and Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden State. Art was loaned to the museum by local collectors and East Coast museums. Daggett himself added to the scientific collection, offering 8,000 mounted birds and 3,000 beetles that he had prepared himself. The museum was also put in charge of the La Brea Tar Pits on the old Hancock Rancho. As a way to entice other donors, the public was assured the building would be fireproof and guarded, so that no treasures would be lost.

rosegarden

The museum was opened to the public on July 4th, 1913. The Los Angeles Times enthused:

Appreciation of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art was clearly defined at the formal opening of the magnificent new structure at Exposition Park yesterday when more than 10,000 persons visited it for the first time. To those who went to see what had been accomplished, the exhibits were a revelation. To those who merely dropped in for a view of the building and a little amusement there was much to marvel at and many things to bring expressions of delight and surprise. The stately and impressive dome, finished in gray marble and brown, with an illuminative and artistic colored skylight, immediately brought a realization of the worth of the undertaking. The entrance to either of the two halls which were open to visitors gave an impression of much work well done toward bringing to Southern California an institution which in its way will rival the famous Field Museum of Chicago, and others in the East.
The bone room where fossils were stored and prepared

Visitors were dazzled by a wide variety of objects, which no doubt had various levels of actual value. According to one visitor, the historical hall was filled with Native American and pioneer relics, including branding irons for cattle, photos of pioneers, utensils, Inca pottery, Native American dress, and relics from the Philippines. The crowd was particularly in awe of the scientific hall, which was filled with treasures from the gooey La Brea Tar Pits seven miles away:

The scientific hall, in which are located specimens of birds, beasts and fish, contains one of the most extensive collections of animals of the Pleistocene age in existence, all secured from La Brea fields. The handling of these specimens brought many exclamations from thousands who gazed in awe at the monstrous giant ground sloth skeleton, its immense clavicle and thigh bones, its huge claws and mighty ribs, all an indication of the size of this strange, extinct animal that once roamed the valleys of Southern California. The mastodon, the buffaloes, saber-toothed tigers, wolves, camel and horse, all helped delight the student as well as the layman. A remarkably complete collection of shells containing nearly 2000 varieties, proved conclusively that nature is the greatest exponent of the shell game. The butterfly and moth world is exhibited in a thousand specimens, some of them from the greatest collection in the world, that of Baron Rothschild.

For all its success, in many ways the museum was still a ragtag operation. Daggett explained to a reporter, "We have scarcely begun our work and with the assistance of the people of the southwest we will be years in completing it and making it one of the finest museums in the world."

He went on: "Our present staff consists of only five men and our means are limited to the small county appropriation, but despite this we expect to push the work and forge ahead rapidly."

However, the museum's profile (if not its pocket-book) would get an even bigger boost when it was officially dedicated at perhaps the greatest celebration Los Angeles has even seen.

Los Angeles Becomes Itself

Men and women of Los Angeles, in the name of Los Angeles County, I present this building, its contents and its perpetual care to you and your children and your children's children forever.- Captain John D. Fredericks

On November 5, 1913, the Owens Aqueduct was officially dedicated by William Mulholland, its principal architect. With the coming of the aqueduct waters, Los Angeles was able to become the vast metropolis it is today. The city celebrated the momentous occasion with a two-day celebration.

The California National Guard Armory
The California National Guard Armory

On November 6th, the newly named Exposition Park was "given" to the public. The Armory, Exposition Building, Museum, and a fountain in the center of the sunken garden honoring Mulholland were all formally presented to eager Angelinos:

As early as 11 o'clock people began to pour into Exposition Park. By noon when the exercises were begun with a band concert in the sunken gardens, the crowd had increased to tremendous proportions. The number of persons in the park was difficult to estimate, as they were packed in many parts of the great grounds and kept continually moving about.

Capt. John D. Fredericks gave a speech gifting this "public home for treasures of art" to the people. It was reported that visitors to the museum were equally in awe of a self-portrait by Renaissance master Raphael, loaned by a wealthy patron, and a painting of man-of the-hour Mulholland. That night, a reception at the museum for distinguished guests wrapped up the glorious events.

Once the distinguished guests left, the cash-poor museum continued to try and find artifacts and funding. One particularly sorry situation occurred just months after its glorious dedication:

The board of supervisors was asked by the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, yesterday, for $19 worth of wheelbarrows to transfer the bones of the only imperial elephant ever recovered from the Pleistocene period, out of La Brea Oil pits, the "deathtrap of the age." But for his need of wheelbarrows, it might have been weeks or months before Director Daggett would have made public his great find, waiting such a time as would permit the assembling of the parts and the reconstruction of the elephant and the complete mounting of the tree.

Over the first years of its existence, the museum displayed a mish-mash of the silly and significant. There were loaned exhibitions of Chinese porcelain, as well as shows celebrating the book "Ramona," and the presentation of an unreadable manuscript found in what was referred to then as Chinese Turkestan by a local adventurer. Perhaps the biggest academic success was the unveiling of the "imperial elephant (mammoth)" found in the La Brea Tar Pits. Eugene J. Fischer, an osteologist at the museum, spent eight months restoring it.

In 1920, Dr. William A. Bryan took over as director of the museum. He would stay until 1940. While the science collection continued to grow in size and prestige, the art department often missed out on important art collections, which seemed to always go to East Coast museums. The museum did get a big collection of photographer Mode Wineman's studies of Western America, and Whistler's "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" was exhibited in 1933. The California Art Club held annual contests at the museum, where prizes like $100 from the Pig 'n Whistle Company to the best figure painting were awarded to lucky local amateurs. In 1930, a large new wing was added to the museum, much to the growing population's delight:

In the addition, which houses eighteen new exhibition galleries, are many exhibits, among them a big game one from Africa, donated to the county by Leslie Simpson, hunter and naturalist. The exhibit includes 32 animals set in an area of 40 by 80 feet. The animals are being arranged by museum experts around an African water hole to give the set a touch of realism.
olympics.jpg

During the 1932 Olympics, Exhibition Park was at the center of the action, as the home of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The museum was also an official Olympic site. Amazingly, during this time the Olympics also had an art competition and gave out medals to artists around the world. Neil A. Grauer of the San Francisco Chronicle explains:

In 1932, Olympic officials made every effort to accord the artistic competitions a status equal to that of the athletic contests. Artists of 31 nations submitted more than 1,100 pieces to a mammoth exhibit that filled the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. Entries included oil paintings, prints, architectural designs, drawings, sculptures in the round and in relief, models, medals, some samples of the decorative arts - such as glass, silver and textiles - and watercolors.

But as the depression worsened, so did the museum's always tenuous budget. In 1934, museum officials considered closing from March to June. A donation by the late Mira Hershey made it possible for the museum to stay in operation, although only one floor was opened to the public.

Growing Apart

Art is a grand thing but our history is more valuable to us and we live in an age of science. It is the relics from the tar pit and the fine collections of historical material which make scholars and scientists from afar visit our museum, while the Huntington Gallery overshadows everything else in the west in art.....I frankly do not know what should or should not be done about streamlining our museum, but let us consider well before we do it.

During the 1940s, the museum was growing and changing. Money was tight during the war. Discoveries continued at the La Brea Tar Pits. As early as 1940, many began calling for a museum on site at the now world-famous tar pits, to house the many wonders found there. The art department started to become more powerful, getting artwork from J. Paul Getty and William Randolph Hearst, who would donate over 900 objects (of varying quality). Many interesting figures in the emerging art scene worked at the museum, including Gloria De Herrera, who would later become a confidant of Matisse. However they were often stifled by the museum's conservative board. James Byrnes, the first curator of modern art at the museum, recalled:

After much cajoling, he got permission to purchase Jackson Pollock's 22-by-22- inch painting "No. 15," for $400...- - provided that he use it "for educational purposes" and keep it in his office, where it wouldn't offend the trustees. Byrnes bought the painting but refused to follow the rules... "I hung it on the second floor, where the trustees never went," he said.

In the 1950s, a brash businessman named Norton Simon joined the board at the museum. Simon was also in the process of amassing one of the greatest collections in the history of the West Coast. Along with many others, Simon began pushing for a separate county art museum. (He would eventually have a falling out with the board, and create his own museum.) In 1961, the Museum of History, Science and Art officially split in two. In 1965, the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened next to the La Brea Tar Pits, taking the old museum's art collection with them. The original museum was now the Natural History Museum. Further separation occurred in 1977, when the Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened, also at the tar pits.

The lone Los Angeles County Museum of Art, History and Science was no more. In its place is a large, world-class museum system filled with priceless collections, spread all across this large city. The men and women who built the museum would be proud -- Los Angeles is now one of the leaders of culture, not only in the United States, but all around the world.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares.

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