Better Know a Museum: Los Angeles Part 2

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to part 2 of our journey through the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Last week we saw their new Cenozoic and how well done it was. But how does the museum fair in other areas. This time we are looking at the museum’s archaeology collection.  I said collection instead of exhibit because that is what the museum was going for in their display Visible Vault: Archaeological Treasures from Ancient Latin America.

I’m currently depressed and lazy so I will let KT Hajeian, Collections Manager of Anthropology at the museum, laid it out:

“Our Latin American collection (much of which is on display in the Visible Vault) was a mix of purchases and donations (and a few long term loans that eventually became donations). When one of our previous Curators, Charles Rozaire was first hired, his primary responsibility was to create and the old Ancient Latin American Hall which opened in 1966. Coincidentally, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s it was “trendy” to have Latin American art in your home so many of the wealthier Hollywood homes had small collections. Luckily for us, the trend went out of fashion and we received many donations in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. Charles Rozaire was then able to use these donations to cover the bulk of the items that would be needed for the exhibit and purchased others to fill the gaps where we didn’t have many items. There are different laws for different parts of the world regarding the transport of antiquities but this site, http://exchanges.state.gov/heritage/index.html describes the one that is most important to us, the UNESCO law of 1970 that prevents the illicit transport of cultural property. Basically, since the objects were acquired before 1970, they are legally part of our collection. Any archaeological excavations that have taken place since 1970 require the permission of the country where the excavation takes place. Any excavation of Native American cultural property requires a Native American representative to be present at all times.”

With that out of the way, let’s look at the exhibit itself. Visible Vault opened in 2009 after the old Latin American hall was closed to make way for the Dinosaur Mysteries exhibit set to open next year. The hall was kinda old and outdated, mainly just bland display cases filled with ancient relics. Really the only highlights were a stunning mural of a Mayan pyramid and a life-sized replica of the Aztec Calendar Stone. But when the hall was closed the museum decided to cast the artifacts in a new light.

Unless you an intern, a volunteer, on a special tour, or just really damn lucky, people never get to see a museum’s collections. So for Visible Vault, the idea was to arrange the items as if they were sitting in the storeroom. Well, at least on side. The other side has the usual display case set up. But that doesn’t really matter when you take lighting into effect. The specimens have been set in a dark environment with dynamic lighting. It almost created a sense of mystery. More importantly, it fit with the museum’s goal of showing how the museum works and their aesthetic of a 21st century museum. Here are some specimens:

Mayan insence burner

A Peruvian water vessel depicting... a scorpion... man... or something...

Aztec feathered serpent effigy

But like anything in this universe, it wasn’t without flaws. Most of the specimens aren’t labeled. Instead of going through the tedious task of creating tags and signs for everything, the museum employed large touch-screen computers:

The moderately decent touch screen

I actually found this to be a hindrance. It was difficult to find the artifact you wanted to identify and the wands didn’t always work. Of course this was a year before the Age of Mammals hall with its much better computer screens, so obviously there were some kinks to work out.

All said and done, it’s really quite a display, if not for its innovations then just for the sheer quantity of quality artifacts on display. I do not know if they will occupy a new, grander hall in the future. Perhaps this will be their home for years to come. If my museum ever makes it past a small building, I hope to create archaeology exhibits that immerse people in the experience of the worlds these artifacts came from.

Till next time!

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