by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On 6 November 1913, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art opened at the east end of Exposition Park, becoming the first museum in the city to open its doors. While history was first in order, future decades brought about a split in the institution, notably when the art section was separated and turned into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened on the west side in 1965. Meanwhile, the Exposition Park facility was reinvented as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an early issue, the fifth in the first volume from May 1927, of the publication, The Museum Graphic, published bimonthly from September to June by The Patrons Association, a support group of what was called, in shorthand, the Los Angeles Museum.
Being an institution with a diverse range of subjects, the publication reflects that through its contents. First, however, editor William Alanson Bryan, a zoologist and ornithologist who was director of the museum from 1921 to 1940, wrote a short editorial to mark the end of the first year of The Museum Graphic. He gave thanks and appreciation “to those friends who have made its existence possible,” specifically funding from The Patrons Association.
Obviously, support groups of whatever type are essential to museums and Bryan noted that “an ever-increasing strength of membership is obvious to those who realize the superlative value of the Museum as a necessary and unique cultural center.” If the rise in membership was correlated by “fast-growing public interest,” then the publication “will warrant an increased and improved output.” That, in mind, Bryan concluded by raising the hope “that the future holds promise of fruitful accomplishment.”
The lead article was a tribute to William S. Cherry, whose collection of African artifacts was long on display at the museum. Cherry, it was stated, “was widely acclaimed an explorer second only to Henry M. Stanley in the romantic interest of his adventures and the scientific importance of his discoveries” in Africa from about 1890 to 1901.
After a short stay in Chicago upon his return to the United States, Cherry and his wife came west and settled in Santa Ana in Orange County, where he was a rancher and owned a machine shop. After service in the Canadian Army during the First World War, he came back to the region, settling in Pasadena, and became a marine engineer, remaining in this capacity until his sudden and strange death.
Cherry had just left New York on a ship, which went through the Panama Canal and was heading up the west coast of the Americas, and was preparing a report for the Smithsonian Institution. One evening, a page of his report blew out of a window in his room and was lodged over the rail. He ran out to retrieve the paper and began to return to his room when he stopped and then collapsed over the rail and into the ocean. His body was never recovered and the article noted “it was a strange close to a singularly adventurous life—strange, but solemnly poetic.”
Another major article was the second part of a series on museum taxidermy, with the story picked up around 1890 and the development of the technique in American museums, such as the Dyche Museum where the University of Kansas is located and the American Museum of Natural History. It was noted that improvements in photography went hand-in-hand with those in taxidermy because of the more precise documentation of birds, for example.
The piece added that work done at the turn of the century at the famed Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago with mammals, included a noted exhibit of white-tailed deer from northern Michigan. This display, featuring the deer with natural-looking foliage and painted backgrounds, was a landmark for the field (pardon the pun.)
John Rowley, who wrote the article, then detailed his work at the Los Angeles Museum using “a simpler and more direct method” of casting in clay rather than plaster for these displays. He wrote a book, published in 1925, explaining his methods, and also discussed the use of electric, rather than natural light which caused bleaching, for illuminating exhibits. These elements, among others, meant that the Los Angeles Museum displays “represent the last word in this type of exhibition.”
Another article of interest was the use of shadow boxes in history exhibits, as outlined by Dr. Owen C. Coy, a prominent California historian. Explaining that “the function of the historical museum is to portray to the eye a correct impression of an historical fact,” Coy highlighted a shadow box showing the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at the “Bay of Smokes,” probably, the historian stated, Santa Monica Bay.
Coy explained that “history can be taught most excellently by means of pictorial representations” in which “the scene is shown in perspective, thus giving appearance of reality not to be had in any flat picture.” He went on to note “that the story of California may be fairly well represented in forty such scenes.”
Technical work on the boxes was handled by Gregory S. Allen, a sculptor and artist in Los Angeles, who “has made a special study of presentation of scenes in miniature” and his Cabrillo work was recently installed at the Junior Museum, a section of the institution on the ground floor specifically for children.
It is telling that Cabrillo’s landing was to be the first of the shadow boxes because the Spaniard “was the first white man to visit the coast of Alta California” and this meant that this fact should “properly be taken as the first in the series.” It did not seem to occur to Coy and others associated with the museum to view thousands of years of native indigenous occupancy as connoting history before the arrival of the European.
Now, Indians are shown in the shadow box as being approached by Cabrillo and there is a kizh, or native dwelling, depicted. Coy states that “the Indians too are given an important place,” but not so much so that they deserved the first box depicting them before European contact.
Other exhibits include material on prints and print making, including how to properly store and house these artifacts; the art of iron casting, including cast iron jewelry and art; the concept of “bird wanderers,” which really means migratory patterns of birds through the United States from points north to south; updates to the museum library, including a photo of the facility; and a visit to the Otis Art Institute, situated in the residence of the late Harrison Gray Otis, powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times (the home has been featured in a post on this blog.)
There is also a brief piece on Junior Museum Activities, written by Howard B. Smith, who visited nearly thirty American museums and wrote of what some did with “educational work and directing the attention of the boy and girl toward the treasures in the museum collection. He referred to programs at museums in Colorado and Rhode Island, in which art and natural history were the subjects from which programs were developed specifically for children.
At the Los Angeles Museum, Smith wrote, “we . . . are attempting the exhibition of children’s work” in art, including a four-year old girl and her drawings, which “have attracted much attention,” and a ten-year old boy sculptor. He added, “we intend to organize classes in drawing from objects in the museum as soon as facilities can be provided.”
Moreover, a series of Natural Study Classes was launched for children over the age of ten with the tag line “How to Make a Museum Your Own,” while a Collector’s Club of the Los Angeles Junior Museum involved shells, stamps, and minerals. For those 18 or older, a competitive stamp collector’s exhibition was to be held in June. Finally, Smith concluded by observing that the Junior Museum, open 9-5 every day but Wednesday when the closing time was Noon, and Saturday when it closed at 4, was adding to its own collection of artifacts and books for its library.
Among brief summaries of exhibits were those dedicated to individual artists; to groups of painters and sculptors; to children’s book art; to butterflies; and others. At the rear of the publication is a list of members of the Board of Governors, including county supervisor R.F. McClellan, former University of Southern California president George F. Bovard, historian Rockwell Hunt, and architect Arthur B. Benton. Directors of the Museum Patrons Association included Times publisher Harry Chandler, real estate developer William May Garland, and current U.S.C. president Rufus von KleinSmid.
A review of the pages of this issue of The Museum Graphic is an interesting look into professional museum standards over ninety years ago as well as the specific programming conducted by the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art not quite fifteen years into its existence.