For more than 75 years, the Southwest Museum displayed one of the most extensive collection of Native American artifacts in the US. The museum that Charles Fletcher Lummis built on a Mount Washington hilltop in 1914 was the first in Los Angeles, but eventually fell into disrepair—the once-great museum was acquired by the Autry Museum of the American West back in 2002, which promptly shut it down. For a decade, the lovely museum stood empty; it has since reopened, for a few hours one day a week. But earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the site a "national treasure" and dedicated themselves to improving its fortunes. As part of that effort, they conducted interviews with 87 museum stakeholders about the future of the museum. The interviews were intended to get a feeling for how the community views the museum and it's potential for change, and now it is up to the 15‐person Steering Committee to take this survey report and decide on the museum's fate.
There are strong feelings on each side about whether the museum should be returned to it's original purpose (displaying it's collection Native American artifacts) or be adapted for broader use. Residents living near the museum were largely in support of returning the museum to its original form, while outsiders favored an approach more adaptive to modern needs. (63 percent of those surveyed live in the Northeast LA area, while the other 37 percent of stakeholders were from outside communities.) The Steering Committee will spend the next 10 to 12 months discussing the stakeholder suggestions before presenting a vision for the new Southwest Museum.
Here are some of the things they'll be discussing:
The Native American Artifact Collection
Stakeholders interviewed agreed that the Native American artifact collection needs to be the prime focus of the museum, but several new adaptations were suggested to better present the artifacts for modern audiences—in order to ensure repeat visits, several people suggested more "dynamic" and rotating exhibits.
Among the changes suggested: connecting the museum to a "larger network of historic, cultural, and natural sites," such as LA geography or Route 66. Interviewees also suggested new topics for exhibits, such as the cultural diversity of Los Angeles, architecture, and foods of the Southwest. There was also suggestion of paying homage to museum creator Charles Lummis, adding his story into the flow of the museum. An exhibit would explore the importance of the Southwest as the first museum in Los Angeles.
The museum facility itself would also need extensive modernization of its infrastructure to bring it up to date with contemporary museum standards—that would mean both aesthetic improvements, as well as improvements to artifact care and preservation.
Casa de Adobe
The museum's replica of an early California rancho is in need of extensive renovations to bring its restrooms and kitchen facilities up to code. It's estimated the repairs would cost about $5 million, so the committee is also taking stakeholder input on the future of that site. Interviewees have suggested it could be converted for several new uses such as a destination restaurant, music hall, or rental space for events.
Shopping and Restaurants
One area of concern over reopening the Southwest Museum is, naturally, the financial feasibility. The Steering Committee is looking at the possibility of adding revenue generating components to the museum as a way to ensure it can pay for itself.
Most popular among stakeholders was the prospect of event rentals at the site—parties and film shoots could make use of the museum's unique architecture and location. Additionally it was suggested the museum make use of it's event spaces for non-profit events open to the public as a way to engage its community. The gift shop could also be reopened as an income generator—in 1992, the shop accounted for 24.4 percent of museum revenue.
A restaurant on site was also suggested to take advantage of the facility's expansive outdoor spaces and views. Interviewees had varied opinions on what form the eatery should take, be it fine dining, coffee shop, or cafeteria, but agreed it would be a welcome addition to a neighborhood in need of more dining options.
Connecting the museum to LA schools with after-school programs and day camps
Stakeholders proposed the idea of making the museum not only a destination for school field trips, but also a venue for after-school camps and summer programs featuring interactive programming. The museum could offer workshops and classes on Native American culture, teaching children about subjects such as "dance, pottery, gardening, or cooking" through a more hands-on approach. Also suggested was an "archeological dig adventure" day camp educating children about the process of unearthing the museum's artifacts.
· Stakeholder Interview Summary Report [National Trust for Historic Preservation Report]
· A Look Back at the Heyday of the Troubled Southwest Museum [Curbed LA]
· Southwest Museum Sort of Reopening [Curbed LA]