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.

A Virtual 3-D Tour of Mitchell Caverns, Southern California’s Only Show Cave

Welcome to the tenth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of off-the-beaten-path Southern California spaces, created by Craig Sauer of Reality Capture Experts using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

We’re passionate about all of these virtual tours, but this one is pretty special: seven months in the making, comprising the largest, most ancient, most collaborative and most geographically remote scan in the series. (It also comes sprinkled with a smattering of mystical fairy dust.)

There we were, celebrating Kim’s birthday with a private guided tour of the newly-reopened Mitchell Caverns show cave, high in the Providence Mountains near the Arizona border.

Dedicated State Parks ranger/interpreter Andy Fitzpatrick unlocked the gates and took us on a trip back and forward in time, from the limestone cave’s violent geological prehistory, its fossil deposits, ritual use by the native Shoshone people, reinvention as a Route 66 roadside attraction, vandalism by Oliver Stone’s The Doors crew and amateur jackasses, then down into the dust by the side of the pathway to dig the miniature current inhabitants (Niptus beetles and pseudoscorpions).

He even turned out all the newly installed LED spotlights, allowing us a moment in the complete darkness at the center of the earth, then switched on a black light to reveal delicate streams of bat urine on the cave walls. It’s quite the “gross… but cool!” show stopper that nicely echoes the showmanship of the roadside attraction era.

There’s nothing we enjoy more than exploring a completely unique environment with someone who knows and loves it intimately, and you can hear Andy talk about these amazing caverns in episode 126 of our podcast, You Can’t Eat The Sunshine.

And to learn more about the wacky, bush wacking roadside attraction days, check out the posthumously published Keepers of the Caves: A True Account of Twenty Years of Modern Pioneering by Jack Mitchell, a weird and wonderful tale of an iconoclast and his incredibly tolerant wife in Depression-era Southern California.

Like all good roadside attractions, the Mitchell place had a novelty building, a nifty stone hut meant to suggest an igloo, and traditionally offered to honeymooning guests.

The sonic qualities of the curved interior are said to be… amusing. Take a virtual tour of the space here.

That evening at the caverns, as the sun slipped behind the mountain and the wide desert plain and historic stone houses purpled, Richard had an idea. “Hey, Andy–do you think our friend Craig could do a 3-D scan of the cave?” And as is Richard’s way, he was already phoning Craig before Andy had a chance to reply. And this is where the fairy dust sparkled.

As Craig tells it, “The morning before Richard called me (from the Caverns!) I had been taking with my barber about the especially cool places I’ve scanned, including JK’s Tunnel and Jergins Tunnel. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and Googled ‘Southern California caves’ and up popped Mitchell Caverns, which I had not heard about before. I learned that they had recently been reopened and thought how amazing it would be to get access to them. But then I saw how far away it was and how unlikely it would be for me to convince someone there to let me scan it. Not one hour later, I got the call from you and Richard, standing there with Andy!”

Apparently, whatever happy spirits inhabit Mitchell Caverns are eager to spread the word.

It took a little fiddling to get approval from the state and coordinate a block of scanning time, but soon the project was a go. Craig’s colleague Michael Asgian joined him in creating the digital file, each starting from one end of the caverns. In addition to the speedy Matterport camera, they used the new Leica BLK 360 camera, which records 3D data with a laser scanner, and better captures the vast open spaces in the caves, as well as the sunny entrances.

While the public can once again book a tour of Mitchell Caverns, the remoteness of the site and limited capacity makes it a difficult place to explore. But thanks to new 3-D scanning technology and a lucky collision of interested people, you can virtually visit at your convenience.

Just click the cave entrance below and prepare to be humbled by the awesome power of water, wind and time. Along the way, you’ll find some pop-up windows, offering information about some of the curious creatures who have been captured by the trail cameras, notable mineral formations and stories from the caverns’ history.

The results are truly astonishing, and we’re thrilled to be able to share Mitchell Caverns with you.