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

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

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:

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:

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

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:

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.

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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:

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:

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

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:

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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