Behind-​the-​Scenes Tours at the Southwest Museum Allow a Peek at Conservation Effort

On September 8, visitors to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian got a very special chance to peek behind the plastic sheeting during one of the museum’s quarterly tours. The Southwest Museum has been open to visitors on Saturdays since May. Because much of the building is still being used to conserve, document, and pack the museum’s collection, the tours, for which visitors sign up ahead of time, have been a way for community members to see the work of the Autry’s conservation staff.

Kim Walters, interim director of the Southwest, welcomes tourgoers in the Sprague gallery (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“The purpose is to showcase the collection, to give visitors the opportunity to see what they would never have chance to see in almost any other museum,” said Paige Bardolph, assistant curator at the Southwest and one of the tour guides. “We want to show all the work we’ve done in the conservation project, and also the work involved in the rehousing of the collection. We want to show the public what we are doing to take care of the collection.”

Paige Bardolph leads the visitors through the conservators’ work areas, which are also stacked high with newly repacked items from the collection (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The Southwest Museum’s collection is being conserved and repackaged in safe, museum-​appropriate materials in preparation for its eventual transfer to the Autry Research Center, a climate-​controlled facility in Burbank that is planned to serve as the main storage space for both the Autry and Southwest Museum collections, as well as the site for the Autry and Braun Research Libraries. The collection’s move to the ARC is projected to begin late this year, though its completion is open-​ended.

As about 40 visitors threaded their way through rows of floor-​to-​ceiling shelves covered in tarps in the Southwest’s main Sprague hall, some of the visitors asked why so much of the collection is in storage rather than on display.

“Not a lot of people know that a museum might have only about 10 percent of its collection on display at any given time,” Bardolph said. “In most museums, very little of the collection is actually on display.”

After Sprague empties, curators and exhibit designers will repaint the gallery and build specially designed cases in its decorative niches that will hold some collection items. Bardolph said the staff is working on an exhibition of Pueblo Indian pottery, Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery, which is scheduled to open in the spring.

Walters shows a visitor the previous packing and storing materials for the collection (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Kim Walters, interim director of the Southwest Museum, helped guide the tour and explained the hows and whys of the conservation and repackaging effort.

In the days before the merger with the Autry, she said, much of the collection was stored in cardboard boxes or metal drawers with little in the way of protection against the elements, including heat, pests, light, moisture, and — important in Southern California — earthquakes.

Bardolph explains the conservation process while visitors inspect some of the items that are being catalogued and put into custom-​built housings (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“Baskets and beadwork, made out of organic material, are extremely susceptible to temperature fluctuations,” Bardolph said. “Otherwise, they will disintegrate and not survive.”

The conservation program, one of the largest now being conducted in the United States, is an effort at protecting the objects as much as possible and involves building custom-​made enclosures for many of the roughly 250,000 objects in the collection. But those enclosures and boxes can be as much as double the size of the previous packing materials, and that has meant that every bit of climate-​controlled space where staff members are not actually working has been turned over to storage.

Visitors take in the view from the top floor of the tower (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Tour participants also climbed the steep, narrow circular staircase to the Southwest’s distinctive tower, part of which was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Some had never been in the space, whose upper floors are now empty. Walters talked about the work done to stabilize the tower and the building after the earthquake and then walked visitors through offices where conservators catalogue and identify pieces of the collection. The upper floors are no longer used for storage because they are not climate-​controlled.

The tour ended in the lower area of the Southwest’s lobby, which showcases highlights of the Southwest Museum collection and is the only part of the museum, aside from the ethno-​botanical garden, that is currently open to the public.

“Everybody seemed pretty interested,” Bardolph said. “Overall, I think they were left with a pretty positive response. Sometimes it’s pretty impressive to see what (objects) we are working on. People are learning about our procedures, and that is a good thing.”

The next behind-​the-​scenes tour at the Southwest Museum is scheduled for December 8 at 1 p.m. Visitors can reserve a space by calling (323) 667.2000, ext. 326, or e-​mailing memberinfo@​theautry.​org.

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.