Southwest Museum Supporters Protest Autry’s Handling Of Collection

Southwest Museum Supporters Protest Autry’s Handling Of Collection

As I’ve watched the dilemma of “The Autry National Center vs. the people of LA” unfold, I (unsurprisingly) always find myself siding with the Autry. The Southwest Museum provides a double conundrum because it is both a history museum and a historic object in itself. While it’s in an institution that seeks to conserve and educate the public about it’s collection, the museum itself is a space with provenance that is a source of local identity. In this case, what is best for the collection is not best for the community, and the community is having an understandably difficult time of accepting that. These protestors may see it as a “loss of taxpayer dollars,” but I think really it’s about a loss of identity and a cultural point of pride.

While I was an intern at the Autry, I toured the Southwest Museum and realized it would be impossible to open the building to the public. It’s not up to code for the public safety of a large number of people, and for them to make it so while meeting historic preservation codes would be a huge time and money investment. At this point, the SW Museum has yet to prove that it’s profitable for them to run. They do have a great collection, but it’s in dire need of costly conservation after being miss-appropriately cared for for a long number of years. And at the end of the day, running a museum is not cheap, nor lucrative, and I doubt these protestors understand there is much more that has to happen and be paid for behind the scenes before anything can be put on display.

However, I also see a fundamental lack of communication between museum and protestor. The SW Museum has been open to tour in the past, which I think was a great opportunity for people to come to know the state of the building and collection after a ten year closure. I think if more of these taxpayers had taken this intimate opportunity to see what the Autry has done with their money, they’d understand. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Autry is doing this largely out of their own pocket. They’re not looking to get rich off of the SW Museum; they want what is best for the collection’s preservation.

I also assume that the Autry moved the collection off-site to its Burbank storage facility because there simply wasn’t enough adequate storage space at the Southwest Museum to house it. Besides, if they do renovate the building, it would be a necessary step anyway. Lastly, it’s a museum, folks. There’s no way the city of Los Angeles is feeling any of the “loss of jobs” by not having the collection housed in the decrepit old museum. The Autry’s main campus is housed on Los Angeles city property, meaning essentially the location of the collection has no effect on jobs.

A very important point that the Autry failed to make in their statement is that the new Burbank center is also home to a new, innovative space for American Indians to interact with items from their collection. What these protestors may not understand is that American Indians who’ve allowed their cultural objects to become a part of the collection in return often expect their objects to be handled in a specific way in accordance to their beliefs. Sometimes they need to perform rituals with the objects, or they request they be stored apart from other objects, or not handled by menstruating women. The Autry understands these needs, and they were able to building the Burbank facility from scratch to meet them. The SW Museum simply cannot. It was opened 100 years ago, when the relationship between Native people and museums was much, much different, when museums did not consider the beliefs of the objects’ source communities in their practices. 

My overall point is the Autry isn’t swindling anyone, or abusing taxpayer dollars. They want what is best for the collection, and that’s what their doing with what resources they have, both spatial and financial. These protestors need to look at the bigger issue and maybe ask themselves why the loss of the Southwest’s collection really bothers them. Hopefully they will come to agree that the collection’s safety is of paramount importance, and then begin to explore other options to redefine the role the SW Museum can play in their community.


If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Take You There

I haven’t updated this blog in a while but since I’m avoiding work I might as well be intelligent in my methods of procrastinating. It’s November of my second year of graduate school. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed, but I suppose that is how it goes when one is a dreading an encroaching deadline every single week. This has been both a challenging yet straightforward semester. I’m only taking two classes although I’m enrolled in 15 credit hours, which I didn’t know was possible in graduate school.

 A lot of my time has been occupied by the National Park Service project I’ve been working on for the Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. This is my first experience managing a public history project by myself and not only that, I’m the sole researcher and writer on the project. I’m responsible for synthesizing about 500 million years of geological and cultural history of the Flagstaff region for future park rangers, interpreters and teachers. Though I’ve always thought of myself as a writer in one capacity or another, this is the first time I’ve been paid a substantial amount of money to produce a substantial amount of work. As demanding as graduate school has become it’s easy to think of it as just another deadline, just another paper, but hopefully it’s a lot more than that. I like to imagine a future Wupatki ranger searching for a way to make the American public comprehend the Mongollon Rim or the difference between the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range Region of the Arizona landscape. A light bulb will go off in their head, they’ll pull open their top desk drawer and pull out their dog-eared, bookmarked and well-worn copy of….I don’t have a title yet… “The Natural and Cultural History of Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments by Laura Keller, MA” or just “SECRET SQUIRRELS by Laura Keller, MA.” However, having visited the site and seeing how they put their current administrative resources to use, I’m also glad to know that in five years from now, another public history student at ASU will be paid to recreate the same document I am creating now.

Geological history isn’t exactly my thing (or anyone else’s in this department, for that matter), but it’s encouraging that not only can I understand the history of trilobites which lived 10 million years ago, but I can also find it interesting and I can also interpret it in an interesting manner for someone else. I’m lucky to have this opportunity and working for a national park is always an eye opening experience…not only in terms of the wonderfully eccentric but incredibly kind people who are endowed with the stewardship of the nation’s history, but also because the landscapes are the most unique and important in our nation and worth remembering, understanding and sometimes celebrating. I’m always grateful to be a part of the projects I’ve been involved in. In six to twelve months I’ll be looking for my first full time position in public history and although I have many advantages over my colleagues, it doesn’t cease to be a nauseating thought. Although I’ve heard repeatedly about the superior reputation of my program, I still know of complete incoming classes who regardless of withdrawal or graduation, failed to secure jobs in history. I am lucky in the fact that I am not tied to a specific location, yet I don’t want to be scraping snow off my car in a year from now in order to make it to my administrative assistant job at the Moorhead Historical Society. If I do complete my thesis on Jean Baptiste Charbonneau which is the current plan, that fate is not unlikely.

This month will be the first time I’ll be published in a scholarly journal, even if it is just a review of a travelling museum exhibit. This month the first exhibit I’ve curated by myself will also be published on the Autry National Center’s website, even if it is only online, devoid of original scholarship and a paid advertisement. Next month I will be done with the Wupatki project and will hopefully have a tangible product that I could show to any non-historian or geologist in my life and they would find it interesting and understandable. Next year will be my first appearance on a conference panel and hopefully my first independent presentation as a poster session participant. Though I cannot tell you where I’ll be come May, I know that for right now, I’m very proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished. As this semester comes to a close, my thoughts travel to a wayside near Danner, Oregon, which marks the grave of a 61 year old man the nation fondly remembers as “Little Pomp.” Much like Baptiste, I’m not headed in any particular direction or with any particular destination in mind. As I spend the next six to twelve months uncovering the mystery of his life, perhaps mine will be uncovered as well. 

“Does that say Lewis and Clark?”

Impulsive Me: Hey, you know how I’m working for the Autry for free all summer, far exceeding the number of hours I actually need to fulfill my internship?

Sensical Me: …yes.

Impulsive Me: Well, even though they put me with the Exhibit Design team because Curatorial didn’t have time to mentor an intern this summer, how about I volunteer to help them anyway, on top of the internship I’m already doing?

Sensical Me: That’s really going to cut into my Wii time. And the time you’ve reserved in case you actually decide to get a job that pays you for the rest of the summer. 

Impulsive Me: Forget it! This sounds awesome!


Today I met with Dr. Carolyn Brucken, Curator of Women of the West and Interim VP of Curatorial and Exhibitons at the Autry National Center. I wanted to pick her brain about her job, her views on public history today and find out more about running a mid-size (large, if you ask me) curatorial team. 

Our meeting ended with her showing me the storyboard for an exhibit they’re planning for 2015 on the Civil War in the West. It’s fair to say my interest was aroused right off the bat when I saw the pictures and theme ideas she had thumb tacked to the wall: “Kit Carson,” “John Brown,” “Buffalo Soliders,” “John C. Fremont,” “Bosque Redondo,” “Missouri Compromise of 1820,” “The US and Mexican War,” etc. But it was when she said “I want to begin the story with Lewis and Clark,” I admit, I think I was a bit more than aroused. The words lept out of my mouth, “Any additional research you need done I’d be more than happy to help you with. Anything at all, really.” 

But in all serious this looks like it will be a great exhibit. Her idea is to explore the concept of the Civil War from East to West and West to East, not just North and South. Starting with the two enslaved members of the Corps of Discovery, Clark’s slave York and Sacajawea, involuntary wife of the worthless Charbonneau, the exhibit will move on the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which according to Dr. Brucken, solidified slavery as a polarizing debate in the West for the nineteenth century. 

Once again pulling out my Fort Union experience as a qualifier, noting that I’d already done a lot research on the Civil War in the West and that we had explored similar themes, I could see her nibbling on my hook in her head when I offered to help. She agree somewhat hesitantly, but then became more excited with the possibility of me hunting down artifacts and objects for her because of my connections. (Still not sure what those connections are.) However, I think this will be a great experience and hopefully help me find a thesis topic. I’m trying to prove my merit to the museum and am doing everything I can to get in bed with the curatorial department at the Autry. 

Lastly, she handed me this book to read:


Reviews to come.