An Unhappy March for Charles Fletcher Lummis and The Southwest Museum

March was a sacred month for Charles Fletcher Lummis, that remarkable character who gave so much to his adopted home of Los Angeles and to the greater Southwest. It was the month of his birth, and the time of the wildest of the revels hosted in his stone castle home along the Arroyo, honoring himself and his fellow “March Hares.”

How tone-deaf of the Autry Museum of the American West to choose March to announce that, having taken possession of the Southwest Museum’s priceless collections and endowment following the institutions’ 2003 merger, it would be seeking proposals from developers to take over the white elephant on the hill, the institution erected by Lummis as the culmination of a lifetime of collecting, interpreting and preserving the cultural history of the region.

The tale of the decline and erasure of the city’s first museum is long and depressing. It includes artifact theft by administrators, neglected infrastructure and collection care, and a failure by the City of Los Angeles to do its due diligence when the Autry family came calling with empty promises to make all the Southwest’s problems go away.

Since then, it has been a tale of bad faith from the Autry and hard, heartbreaking work by community groups seeking to protect Lummis’ great gift and hold those who control it accountable.

The future of the Southwest Museum will be debated soon, in the court of public opinion, in the press and at City Hall. Before Los Angeles considers what to do with this endangered National Treasure landmark, it’s beholden on anyone who cares to look to the source and understand what has been lost during these dark years of the Autry’s control of the Southwest Museum, and what potentially will be lost forever if the redevelopment plan is allowed to go forward.

We direct you to this 1910 pamphlet, published by the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America: Two great gifts: the Lummis library and collections and the Munk library.

In it, you will find the text of the last will and testament of Charles Fletcher Lummis, explaining his reasoning for gifting his valuable collections of art and artifacts and a library of 5000 items to the newly formed Southwest Museum, a promise made in the sacred month of March on the occasion of his 51st birthday.

The gift was an expression of Lummis’ faith in the potential of Los Angeles to become a great cultural center, and of his determination that the disparate materials that only he could have collected should remain forever intact and accessible in an institution dedicated to their study and interpretation.

If old man Lummis were to stumble today out of a time machine and discover what has become of his beloved Southwest Museum, we would hear oaths and epithets of a vehemence seldom expressed among cultured people. For the incredible gift that he so carefully prepared for the edification and delight of future generations has been squandered and cannibalized, again and again. Lummis would be well be within his rights to demand that his collections, no longer freely available for public use at the Southwest Museum, revert to the possession of his heirs.

Read his will. And if his words move you, as they do us, do not let the story of the Southwest Museum be a slow motion train wreck ending in its complete loss. Say NO to the commercialization of this historic institution. Demand that the Autry honor their commitment to preserve and reactivate our city’s first museum, or step aside and allow the collection and buildings to be cared for by an institution that will.