There are many ways to learn about a city. Each offers its own unique perspective. This month I offer for your consideration a few of LA’s many museums and the reflected insights they may provide.
I am told there are 105 museums within the city of Los Angeles. In addition, cities such as Pasadena, San Marino and Santa Monica have museums. Many of the region’s numerous, local historical societies also have their own collections and proudly display them in permanent or semi permanent homes. In other words, there are many museums to choose from.
For the most part, I will not mention the well known museums – the Getty, the Natural History Museum, the Huntington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the California Science Center, Museum of Tolerance and the Norton Simon to pick just a few random examples.
Instead, I will mention a few of the Los Angeles area’s less well known museums - museums that permit us to glimpse into the region’s past so that we may better understand contemporary Los Angeles.
5801 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Open Daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Belying my last statement, the Page Museum is one of Los Angeles’s well-known museums. Located at the La Brea Tar Pits, I mention the Page because it offers a convenient starting point in our quest to discover Los Angeles.
This museum contains the world’s largest and most diverse assemblage of extinct Ice Age plants and animals. Visitors can learn about Los Angeles as it was between ten thousand and forty thousand years ago when animals such as saber-toothed cats, American lions and mammoths roamed what we now call Wilshire Boulevard and the Los Angeles Basin.
3290 Lang Ranch Parkway
Thousand Oaks, CA 91362
Thursday – Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Next we jump from the Pleistocene Epoch to the time of southern California’s first Native Americans, the Chumash. While the Southwest Museum of the American Indian has one of America’s best collections of Native American artifacts, the seemingly never ending repairs to its Mount Washington facility and the incessant feuding between the Southwest Museum’s different interest groups has resulted in extremely limited operating hours.
However, Ventura County’s Chumash Indian Museum is devoted entirely to the Chumash. Surrounded by stately oak trees and easy walking trails it is a museum that takes visitors back in time. Its gift shop has an extensive collection of replicated Native American artifacts. While its actual collection is somewhat limited, it is the best of the museums I have visited for learning about Los Angeles’s first settlers.
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA
Tuesday – Friday 10:00 a.m.to 4:00 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Whether or not one accepts the early 20th century historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier provided the core defining quality of the United States, America’s movement from east to west had an undeniable impact. To understand Los Angeles one needs some familiarity with America’s westward movement. This museum is a good starting point.
The Museum of the American West is part of the Autry National Center of the American West. The National Center also includes the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. It is a serious, well crafted undertaking that exhibits and interprets the heritage of the American West. The permanent exhibits on the bottom floor, with its stagecoach, pistols and other remembrances of the “Old West” encourages visitors to understand that the frontier was not a cinematic image but involved real people adapting to new circumstances.
2612 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Wednesday – Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
This is not one of L.A.’s “essential” museums. I include it because many people find themselves in Santa Monica and if the museum is open and you have an extra 20 minutes or so, it’s an interesting visit.
This museum is located within the home of an old Los Angeles pioneer. The bottom floor replicates the original home. The top floor is used for revolving exhibits, often artwork.
3800 Homer Street
Montecito Heights, CA
Friday – Sunday and most holidays 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
This living history museum located next to the Los Angeles River is a reminder that the Victorian era did not bypass Los Angeles. It consists of eight historic Los Angeles structures built during the Victorian Era that were saved from demolition and brought to this site.
1501 Will Rogers State Park Road
Pacific Palisades, CA
Thursday and Friday 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Mark Twain is America’s best know humorist. Many people consider Will Rogers Twain’s successor. Some of Will Rogers’ observations:
“Washington, D.C. papers say: ‘Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.’ I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.” (January 27, 1924)
“We are living in an age of ‘Mergers’ and ‘Combines.’ When your business is not doing good you combine with something and sell more stock.” (March 23, 1930)
“… the disarmament conference met today and appointed a commission to meet tomorrow and appoint a delegation who will eventually appoint a subcommittee to draw up ways and means of finding out what to start with first.” (January 28, 1930)
Will Rogers State Park surrounds the Will Rogers residence, a residence virtually unchanged from the time Mrs. Rogers donated it to the state of California. Rogers moved to Pacific Palisades from Beverly Hills when he could no longer keep horses in Beverly Hills. The interior of the home is only viewable with an escorted tour that leaves on the hour. The house offers a glimpse into the life of an American icon and of life in Los Angeles in the 30s.
The park also offers opportunities for hiking, picnicking and even polo.
African American Firefighter Museum
1401 S. Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tuesday and Thursday 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Los Angeles Fire Department Museum and Memorial
1355 N. Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028
Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Between 1924 and 1955 African American firefighters were segregated into one of two Los Angeles fire stations. Fire Station No. 30 was one of them. Inside the museum are clippings and memorabilia relating to black firefighters. However, what makes a visit to this museum memorable is a video that plays on the second floor, narrated by one of the leaders in the fight to desegregate the Los Angeles Fire Department, Arnett "the Rookie" Hartsfield.
In contrast, Fire Station No. 27 now houses the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum and Memorial. It is filled with old engines and fire fighting paraphernalia but makes no mention of the fire department’s racist past.
I have placed both fire stations into one category because of the physical contrast between the two fire stations. One building reflects all the comforts of home, the other a skeleton structure.
600 State Street
Los Angeles, CA 90037
Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
This is the one museum within the Exposition Park museum complex worth making a special trip to visit. The other museums have outstanding collections (Natural History Museum) and exciting displays (California Science Center) but for me, they fail to generate the same degree of immediacy as the California African American Museum. This museum has an eclectic mix of exhibits that often fill historical gaps. Currently there is an exhibit on African Americans in film, a depiction of the African American journey to the West and also art by African Americans.
3100 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Wednesday – Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Southern California and Los Angeles in particular, have been at the forefront of aviation history. Howard Hughes, Donald Douglas, Chuck Yeager, Lockheed, Rockwell International, Edwards Air Force base, all have significant roots in this area.
Hidden on the periphery of Santa Monica Airport, the Museum of Flying was founded by Donald Douglas, President of Douglas Aircraft Company. It is a delight even if you could care less what kind of plane you fly to reach Point B from Point A. The displays include a replica of the Wright Brothers’ flying machine as well as actual aircraft from a variety of eras.
When you have finished touring the museum go across the street to the Santa Monica airport. One of LA’s best-kept secrets is the airport’s viewing platform. From there you can see Santa Monica Bay on one end of the runway and a silhouette of the city at the other end. You will be no more than a couple of hundred yards distant from the small aircraft that are landing and taking off.
800 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Monday – Friday 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Four floors of exhibits devoted to everything and anything you may have ever wanted to know about the Grammy Awards and their recipients. There is something for everyone. I don’t know any other place that offers such an overview of the music/recording part of the entertainment industry – an industry that is synonymous with Los Angeles.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.