I feel a little stupid calling the Southwest Museum a “hidden gem,” because it’s not hidden at all. Anyone who has driven by on the Arroyo Seco Freeway has likely seen it. If you’ve taken the Gold Line between Union Station and Pasadena, the Southwest Museum even has its own station. The museum’s prominent tower, a square Spanish Revival structure vaguely reminiscent of the Alhambra, is perched at the top of a hill overlooking Highland Park.
The Southwest Museum might be my favorite building in L.A. It’s a beautiful landmark, visible all the way from Downtown. Perched above a narrow pass created by the Arroyo Seco, the tower marks the transition point between the urban bustle and industry of Central Los Angeles and the tranquil, hillside neighborhoods of Northeast L.A. and Pasadena further beyond. The sight of the tower warms my heart every time I see it, like being greeted by an old friend. I would see it everyday commuting to Downtown. In the morning, it would ease me into my workday, a sort of gentle precursor to the mass of gleaming towers that awaited me in Downtown. In the evening, its tranquil silhouette against the setting sun would bid me good night. It somehow manages to be both iconic and humble. By all rights, the Southwest Museum should be in the same conversation as the Bradbury Building, Union Station, Griffith Observatory, and other such beloved icons of Los Angeles architecture.
And yet, the Southwest Museum remains an obscure attraction. When I first moved to L.A., the only reason I knew about the museum was the aforementioned Gold Line station. When I tried looking it up online, I had a hard time figuring out if it was even open. The museum is currently owned by the Autry Museum, which is far more interested in drawing visitors to their main museum in Griffith Park. The Southwest Museum is an afterthought for them.
The Southwest Museum was the oldest museum in the city, dating back to the 1900s. In 2003, it was acquired by the Autry in order to secure its prestigious collection of archaeological artifacts. When the Autry was created in the 1980s, it was known mainly for the Hollywood western and country music ephemera collected by its namesake. But its aim was to establish itself as a prestigious museum dedicated to all things American West, and pulling in the Southwest Museum’s vast collection would lend Autry even more credibility. And at the time, it seemed to everyone that this would be a win-win for all parties involved. The Southwest Museum had been financially struggling for a long time, and here was a brand new institution willing to throw around money.
But the outcome wasn’t quite so romantic. Nearly all of the artifacts were moved to other facilities, namely a vast warehouse somewhere in Burbank. At the time, this was done in the name of necessity. The Southwest Museum is an old building, dating back to 1914, but for the purposes of preserving ancient artifacts, it might as well have been prehistoric. In fairness to the Autry, they have been a much better custodian of the artifacts. But once the collection was removed, the Autry was only willing to dedicate just enough resources to the Southwest Museum to avoid accusations that they were outright neglecting it. The museum was only open to the public on Saturdays. A little bit of restoration work was done on the building, but only enough to keep it from falling down the hill.
This was the context that the Southwest Museum was in when I found out about it. Wading into its history, you realize that the politics around it are deeply personal and bitter. I have no memory of the museum from its heyday. What I know of the Southwest Museum is a romantic half-ruin, captivating and largely forgotten.
Driving to the Southwest Museum is all well and fine, but taking the Gold Line is a far more interesting experience because you get to see the most unique feature of the museum walking there from the station. You also get to experience the most pleasant station in the whole Metro rail system. Southwest Museum station is truly a neighborhood stop. There’s no parking lot, no bustling transit hub, and not even that many passengers to speak of.
The station is wedged on a hillside between two quiet streets, with a stairway connecting both to the platform. Palm trees and flowers line the tracks, it’s tranquil, and the station has some rather whimsical pieces of public art. There’s a die partially buried in the cement, some false pedestals, intricate chairs to sit on, and atop a few ionic columns are abstract, winged figures wearing crowns (I liken them to pineapple princesses) pointing in seemingly random directions. It’s cheesy, but also rather endearing.
As you walk to the end of the platform, you’ll see the tower of the Southwest Museum just up the hill on the left. Just cross the street at the stop sign and instead of taking the driveway up the hill, follow the signs down the street to the pedestrian entrance. This is where things get interesting. About a block further on you’ll find the Mayan-style entrance, which is a long tunnel into the hill under the museum. The tunnel is probably about 100 feet long and normally you’ll be the only soul within, giving it a delightfully spooky aura, as if you’ve stumbled across the ruins of a lost civilization. As you walk down the tunnel, your steps echoing off the tiled floor, you’ll pass alcoves built into the walls. These used to display dioramas from the museum’s collection, but the tunnel suffered water damage at some point and the dioramas were taken out. The alcoves have remained empty ever since, and like many things in the museum, they sit as an eerie reminder of what once was.
The tunnel ends at a small, rickety elevator that takes you up into the museum. A jarring transition occurs as soon as the door slides open, when you are deposited in the spacious and well-lit lobby of the museum. A grand staircase takes up most of the room, while a giant arched window reveals the surrounding hills and sky. Murals adorn the walls above the stairway, depicting Native American dancers in traditional dress.
Most of the building is closed off (including, sadly, the tower), but there are two galleries open to the public. On the bottom floor behind the staircase is an exhibit on the history of the museum itself, while upstairs is a gallery of Native American pueblo pottery from New Mexico.
The downstairs exhibit is relatively new, with televisions running programs about the museum and Charles Lummis, the founder of the museum. A headphone station lets you listen to some recorded folk songs. A couple of glass cases hold a handful of archaeological artifacts collected from the American Southwest and Peru, while other displays delve into the legacy of Lummis. One unique aspect of this is a display that is actually very critical of Lummis’ behavior as an ethnographer, with a stinging quote from a local American Indian studies professor:
…a closer look reveals a man who was a self-anointed expert on all things ethnological and ‘Hispanic,’ becoming a primary source to a vested audience of capitalist promoters that sought to erase the indigenous presence of Los Angeles and Southern CaliforniaCindi Alvitre, Tongva, Founder of the Ti’at Society,
Faculty, Cal State Long Beach
Normally, one would not see a statement so critical of a museum’s founder within the very same museum. But this exhibit is a product of the Southwest Museum’s years under the auspices of the Autry. The building may remain, but the institution of the Southwest Museum is effectively dead, and its founder’s word no longer canonical.
Upstairs, a staff desk sits at the top of the grand staircase, next to the main entrance which leads out to the parking lot. Make a left at the top of the stairs and you’ll find yourself in the pueblo pottery gallery, with its arched ceiling and large window. The pottery itself is beautiful, with a very comprehensive overview of the differences between regional styles and ancient and modern techniques. They even have a couple of pieces made by Maria Martinez—you may not have heard of her, but trust me when I say that she is a very big deal in New Mexico.
The artifacts on display, few though there are, are really fascinating and worth a visit in their own right. But the best part of the Southwest Museum is the building itself and the grounds, which can be accessed from both floors. The door from the bottom floor leads out to a patio perched above what was a Southwestern style garden, where cacti, yucca, and other high desert plants grow in beds perched above the narrow pass below.
Here the state of disrepair the museum is in becomes apparent, as the garden has become overgrown to the point of being closed off. Even before the pandemic, the wooden benches were very weathered, the pathways uneven, and a trail that used to lead to the base of the hill had been permanently roped off because it was literally crumbling away. But the half-ruined state of the garden was exactly what I found so captivating about it. If you walk around to the base of the tower, you’ll be treated to an expansive view of Highland Park and the San Gabriel Mountains, occasionally punctuated by the electrical hum of a Gold Line train passing underneath.
The door upstairs leads outside to the back of the museum, to the parking lot. A quiet, nondescript courtyard sits just outside, between the museum and an adjacent education building, with a Spanish roof tile awning covering the walkway. A couple of vending machines sit beneath the awning, while some sculptures by Native American artists sit around the courtyard.
The artwork out here feels haphazardly placed, with little sense of rhyme or reason joining them together other than them all being artworks by Native Americans. There’s a stone statue referencing the Cherokee language. There are bronze sculptures depicting traditional Southwestern Native American forms and another representing a Tongva canoe facing the parking lot. Along the stairs leading up to the parking lot is a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest. That last one might seem particularly random, but it takes me back to my college days at the University of New Mexico, where I worked at an anthropology museum. Located on campus, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology had a totem pole in their courtyard at the time. I guess if you were an anthropology museum that was around in the mid-20th century, you just had to get yourself a totem pole.
The Southwest Museum has an uncertain future. The Autry has put the property up for sale, so at literally any moment its entire purpose could change. If a buyer is found, whether the building would continue to run as a museum—or even remain open to the public—is unclear. For the time being, the Autry continues to open it to the public each Saturday from 10am-4pm. Admission is free.
If you do manage to go, I also recommend complementing your trip with a visit to the nearby Lummis House and learning more about the man behind this fascinating museum. But that’s a place I’ll save for another post.