Tag Archives: museums

When scientific specimens become historic artifacts

In the summer of 1909, just after vacating the White House, Theodore Roosevelt killed a lion in Kenya as part of a collecting expedition for the Smithsonian.  Now the mounted cat is going back on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History after spending twenty years in mothballs.  Here’s Sarah Kaplan’s fascinating piece at The Washington Post:

The past century has taken a toll on the majestic creature. The lion’s tawny fur is crushed in places, and his rumpled mane gives him the appearance of having bed head. A portion of his ear is clipped, chunks of fur are missing, and his glass eyes have gone foggy with age.

Conservator Ron Harvey surveyed the mount, assessing the damage, deciding what to repair and what to leave as is.

“I want him to look his best,” he explained. “But it is 100 years old. I want to maintain that sense of history too.”

The job of a natural history conservator goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Harvey must maintain the specimen’s scientific usefulness, ensuring that it can be studied by future generations. He also wants to preserve it as a historical artifact — an object that can tell us about our past and its own. When museum visitors look at this mount in six months, Harvey hopes they’ll get a sense of how it got to the museum, what it meant when they arrived, what it stills mean today.

“What story did this lion and Roosevelt want to tell us?” Harvey wondered. That’s what he aims to conserve.…

After consulting with museum conservation specialist Cathy Hawks, he decided to leave the lion’s glass eyes — which are cloudy and crizzled from a phenomenon called glass disease — as they are. They’re historic artifacts too, after all, and they’re suggestive of the lion’s old age and impressive backstory. On top of which, it would probably cause more damage to try to take them out.

“What we’re trying to do in conservation is preserve and extend the life of . . . this body that has not been sapped of all its knowledge,” Harvey said.

He noted that the specimen has been cited in scientific journal articles as recently as 2010, and that scientists are developing new tools for research all the time. There may be other stories — about lion biology, East African ecosystems, 20th century taxidermy methods — buried inside this specimen, waiting for someone with the right question and the right tools to answer it.

Roosevelt’s lion is a working scientific research specimen, but it’s also a historic artifact.  It reminds us that science is a human process embedded in the time and culture in which it takes place.  The National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the Natural History Museum don’t just preserve the record of life on earth, but also the record of how we’ve come to understand it.

Mounted lions from Roosevelt's Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

Mounted lions from Roosevelt’s Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the things that makes a visit to venerable old natural history museums so special.  As I’ve said before, a stroll through the fossil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History is almost like a tour of milestones in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Seeing any real dinosaur fossil is a treat, but at the AMNH you’re also seeing the life’s work of legendary figures like Barnum Brown, Henry F. Osborn, Charles H. Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews.  You’re standing in the presence of giants in a dual sense, both the remains of long-dead creatures and the ghosts of those who brought them to light.

If you’re planning a trip to the AMNH, I heartily recommend reading Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History before your visit.  It’s an engrossing reminder that natural history and human history are intertwined, and that museums house stories as well as specimens.  Thousands of stories, millions of stories—stories behind every pair of glass eyes, mounted on every metal armature, locked away in every drawer.

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Illinois calls “finders, keepers” on Santa Anna’s leg

I guess this story is sort of Halloween-appropriate, since it involves a severed body part.  It’s a fake body part, but still.

A history professor from Texas believes there’s an appropriate place for Mexican general and president Santa Anna’s artificial leg and it isn’t the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

Teresa Van Hoy thinks it should be returned to Mexico, where he headed the Mexican government 11 times.

The state says it is staying right here.

“To us it’s non-negotiable,” said Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. “They say they want to start a conversation. That conversation has been made before. We’re not interested in a conversation. The answer is no. The leg is where it belongs and it’s staying here.”

Van Hoy is a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, which also is home to the Alamo, the mission famous for its 13-day stand against Santa Anna’s army in 1836.

She was in Springfield Friday with about two dozen students who constructed a “Day of the Dead” memorial at the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the state Capitol grounds. The memorial is intended to recognize Lincoln’s “career-long solidarity with Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” the university said in an announcement of the trip.

They were accompanied by a crew producing a film called “Santa Anna in the Land of Lincoln,” which is part of a project of the class.

“(Lincoln) was the most outspoken critic of the Mexican War,” Van Hoy said. “It seems to us logical that it does not honor Abraham Lincoln to hold on display a leg captured in that war less than a mile from his tomb.”

The leg is housed at the military museum at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. It is currently not on public display as part of the museum’s practice of putting some artifacts in storage periodically.

It is in the Illinois museum because soldiers from Illinois captured the leg during the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, also known simply as the Mexican War.

I just want to note that if I’d known the State Military Museum had Santa Anna’s wooden leg when I was in Springfield, I would’ve skipped the ALPLM and gone there instead.

Santa Anna was eating in his carriage and had removed his artificial leg when the Illinois soldiers surprised him. Santa Anna escaped, but he left the leg behind. The captured leg, which was made in New York out of cork, is probably the most famous artifact in the military museum.

Van Hoy said the history goes beyond just Santa Anna’s leg.

“There is a really rich history here and unfortunately, so far in my view, it has been reduced to a freak show exhibit which doesn’t do full honor to the people of Illinois or the veterans of Illinois,” she said.

Leighton said the leg is a tribute to the 68 Illinois soldiers who died during the battle of Cerro Gordo and the 98 who died during the war.

“We paid for that leg with Illinois blood,” Leighton said. “It honors our soldiers; it honors their service, and it was put in our public trust by our troops to keep in perpetuity. And that’s where it’s going to stay.”…

Van Hoy said she wants people to understand that “hating Santa Anna is toxic.”

“It’s toxic for Mexican-Americans, it’s toxic for the United States where we’re fetishizing a body part,” she said. “It’s toxic for Mexico where their treasures are just held as a freak show exhibit. We can do better than this.”

I think it’s interesting that neither Van Hoy nor Leighton base their arguments on whether or not the leg serves any educational or interpretive function.  Leighton wants to keep it because it “honors our soldiers,” while Van Hoy wants to send it back because it’s “toxic” for Americans and people of Mexican descent.

From a curatorial standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral or “toxic” about putting the leg on display.  Museums are full of items that were captured as war trophies—weapons, flags, bits of uniforms—and remain on exhibit because of their historical significance.  If Van Hoy wants to make a case that Santa Anna’s leg isn’t a proper subject for an exhibition, she has her work cut out for her.

If I was a curator, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit such a compelling object.  With proper contextualization, you could use it to teach visitors something about why Illinois troops would claim such an object as a trophy, how nineteenth-century Americans understood Mexico and the war, and so on.

At the same time, however, I’m not totally on board with Lt. Col. Leighton’s argument for keeping the leg in the museum, either.  Rather than invoking the object’s interpretive or educational utility, he argues that it was bought with “Illinois blood” and that it honors the service of Illinoisans.  Both of those statements may be true, but they fail to take into account some of the nuances surrounding the repatriation of historical artifacts.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m bringing my own inclinations and biases to bear on this question.  As a museum guy, I see the object in terms of its historical and educational significance.  As a soldier, Leighton sees it as a validation of the military sacrifices of his comrades, past and present.  And as someone concerned with the history of Mexican-U.S. relations, Van Hoy sees it as a symbol of the long, troubled relationship between the two nations.

In other words, people engage the past from many different perspectives, and not all of them are detached and academic.

Anyway, if you want to see the leg for yourself, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.  The museum has temporarily taken it off exhibit for a little TLC.  Sounds like they’re taking better care of it than Santa Anna did.

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Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…

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I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.

 

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Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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Object lessons in museums and the humanities

Last week I got an object lesson—quite literally, since it was a lesson with objects—in how valuable university museums and the humanities can be.

As you may recall, this semester I have the tremendous good fortune of doing my graduate assistantship at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.  I’m helping out with the museum’s academic programs, which means I get to work with university classes that use the collection and exhibits as teaching tools.  One of the neat things about working at the McClung is the fact that the collection is so eclectic: Native American archaeology, Egyptian artifacts, fossils, early modern maps, firearms, malacological specimens, decorative arts from every corner of the globe, you name it.  The possibilities for teaching with the museum’s holdings are pretty much endless.

Which brings me to last week’s object lesson.  My supervisor, who’s both an art historian and an extraordinarily gifted museum educator, hosted a group of graduate students for some critical examination of the McClung’s most impressive pieces, like this Buddha statue dating from the Ming Dynasty.

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Now, here’s the cool part.  This wasn’t a class in art history, Chinese civilization, or religion.  It was a nursing class, and the students were there to hone their observational and communication abilities.  A lot of the same skills involved in learning to evaluate works of art and articulate what you observe when you examine an object are the same skills physicians use in diagnosis and other aspects of patient care.

Art museums, it turns out, are great places to train physicians.  When university museums like the McClung or UVa’s Fralin Museum of Art team up with medical schools, the results are both real and measurable:

The Clinician’s Eye Program—using art exposure to help medical students build their observational and diagnostic ‘toolkit’—was launched in 2013 in partnership with U.Va.’s School of Medicine. Based on similar programs at leading medical schools, the program includes interactive tours of objects in the Museum, as well as drawing exercises that strengthen communication skills. Pre- and post-testing demonstrated a measurable impact; 90% of participants reported improved observational skills, increased tolerance for ambiguity, or heightened communication skills, and corresponding testing revealed a marked improvement in these abilities after one 2-hour workshop.

So when the rubber hits the road, when everything is about the bottom line, and when every academic and cultural endeavor must justify its own existence, what good are museums, the humanities, art, and all that other squishy stuff?  Well, for starters, they just might end up saving your life.

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A road trip into Cherokee history

With summer winding down, I thought I’d try to squeeze in one last historical day trip.  This past weekend I headed south of Knoxville to the Little Tennessee River watershed, heartland of the eighteenth-century Overhill Cherokee towns.  It’s one of the state’s richest historical and archaeological regions, and much of it, alas, is underwater.  The construction of Tellico Dam in the 1970s turned this stretch of the Little Tennessee into a reservoir that flooded Native American sites dating back thousands of years.

Fortunately, archaeologists conducted salvage excavations before the waters rose, and you can see the fruit of their labors at places like the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, my first stop of the day.  The inventor of the Cherokee syllabary was born during the American Revolution at the Overhill town of Tuskegee near Ft. Loudoun, a British outpost constructed during the French and Indian War.  (I wrote a review of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Site waaaayyyy back in 2009.)  Lt. Henry Timberlake visited the area in late 1761 on a peace mission following the Anglo-Cherokee war; his 1765 map shows the close proximity between the fort and Sequoyah’s hometown.

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The museum isn’t technically on the actual townsite, since Tuskegee disappeared under the reservoir’s waters when the dam closed.  But it still offers a nice overview of the region’s Native American history going all the way back to the Paleoindian period.

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There’s also a traveling version of the “Emissaries of Peace” exhibition on Cherokee-British relations in the 1750s and 1760s.  (The original exhibit—which is excellent, by the way—is at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)

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Of course, the museum also covers Sequoyah himself and the process by which he created a new written language from scratch.

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Sequoyah was a silversmith and blacksmith by trade.  The museum grounds have a reconstruction of his shop…

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…and a dogtrot cabin.

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But if you ask me, the most impressive thing to see at the museum is this burial mound.  It holds the remains of 191 Native Americans discovered during the salvage excavations conducted before Tellico Dam inundated the area.

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One of the townsites the dam obliterated was Tanasi, located about five and a half miles southwest of where the museum now stands.  In the 1720s it was among the most important of the Overhill Towns; now the only indication that it existed is a marker by the side of the reservoir.  If you’re interested in seeing it, just follow the signs as you leave the parking lot of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

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Timberlake’s map popularized the spelling of the town’s name as “Tennessee.”  Nobody knows who had the idea to apply it to the sixteenth state, but an early tradition holds that it was Andrew Jackson, who served as a delegate to the 1796 constitutional convention in Knoxville.

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By the time of Timberlake’s visit, Chota had eclipsed Tanasi as the principal Overhill town, and it remained a sort of de facto Cherokee capital during the tumultuous years of the Revolution.  In December 1780, following the victory of his Washington Co. militia at King’s Mountain, John Sevier marched south to the Little Tennessee and put the towns to the torch as the Cherokees fled before him.  Joined by Arthur Campbell’s Virginians, the troops stopped at Chota on Christmas Day.  After enjoying some much-needed provisions, they burned the town on the 28th.  The Cherokees rebuilt Chota, but Sevier’s campaign marked the beginning of its decline, and by the 1790s it was a shadow of its former self.

If you head north from the Tanasi marker and proceed for about a mile, you’ll come to a sort of circular cul-de-sac and a grass-covered path.  The path leads to the site of Chota’s townhouse, which the TVA raised above the level of the reservoir’s waters.  The pillars stand for the Cherokee’s seven clans, with an additional pillar for the entire nation.

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Beside the monument is the final resting place of Oconostota, one of the most prominent leaders, warriors, and diplomats of the eighteenth-century Southeast.  Goods interred with his body allowed archaeologists to identify his grave during the salvage excavations.  He was re-buried next to the townhouse site in 1989.

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Because the TVA elevated the site of the townhouse, it’s the only part of Chota that’s still high and dry.  If you want to see the rest of the townsite for yourself, you’d better know how to scuba dive.

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With independence won, the new U.S. government inherited the same frontier problems that had plagued the British: keeping Native Americans and settlers from killing each other, regulating the Indian trade, and securing land cessions from the tribe.  This site, north of Chota and within spitting distance of the site of Ft. Loudoun, was intended to help accomplish those objectives.  These are the remains of Tellico Blockhouse, constructed in 1794 at the request of Cherokees exasperated at white encroachment.

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The blockhouse served as a garrison for federal troops, a trading post (or “factory” in the contemporary terminology), and a conduit for communication between the national government and the Cherokees.  A regulated trade brought under federal control would hopefully stem the abuses Indians suffered at the hands of unscrupulous merchants, while the presence of soldiers would rein in the cycles of violence that erupted whenever frontiersmen and warriors took the law into their own hands.

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The fort was also intended to be a vector for civilization.  Federalist policy toward the southern tribes emphasized acculturation, in the hope that Indians who adopted white ways would be more amenable to land cessions.  Silas Dinsmoor, the second Indian agent stationed at Tellico, accordingly supplied the Cherokees with tools and the means to spin their own cloth.

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The U.S. and the Cherokees did indeed negotiate a number of treaties at the blockhouse before the federal government moved its operations south to the Hiwassee River in 1807.  But neither these piecemeal cessions nor the Indians’ adoption of Euroamerican agriculture and cloth making satisfied their white neighbors’ land hunger.  “Frontier whites did not want Indians civilized,” writes historian John Finger.  “They wanted them out.”  And eventually they got what they wanted.

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Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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The Los Angeles Police Museum: just the facts

This…

…is the city.  Los Angeles, California.

It’s a big city—with the second highest population of any metropolitan area in the nation.  Nearly four million people call this place home.  With that many people, you can support a lot of museums.

Some of those museums exhibit historical artifacts.  When they do, I go to work.  I carry an audio tour device.  Or whatever you call these things:

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It was Monday, June 20.  It was hot in Los Angeles.  We were working the day watch out of the sightseeing division.  My former classmate and longtime friend is Dustin.  My name’s Michael.

We’d decided to check out the Los Angeles Police Museum located in the old Highland Park Police Station, the oldest station building in the city.  Constructed in the 1920s, it’s currently on the National Register of Historic Places.

We arrived at 9:42 a.m.  The door was locked.  The museum didn’t open until 10:00.  Without a warrant, we couldn’t barge in and search the place.  We headed across York Boulevard for breakfast at a Coco’s Bakery.  The service was slow, but the eggs weren’t bad.

10:38 a.m.  We walked back across the street and paid admission.  A small hallway by the front desk featured images from the LAPD’s early history and informative signage, along with numbered guideposts for the audio tour.  The museum boasted an extensive collection of historic police armaments and other paraphernalia relating to law enforcement.  The first exhibit case was full of old billy clubs.  Since the weapons were under glass, we were unable to check for prints.

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10:47 a.m.  The Highland Park station’s misdemeanor holding cells were still in place.  The doors were open, and from the look of things, the inmates had used the opportunity to make their escape.  We determined to keep a look out for any suspicious characters.

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10:52 a.m.  In the enclosed yard behind the building we found an assemblage of law enforcement vehicles ranging from armored transports…

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…to older model police cars and a helicopter.

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The exhibit also included two vehicles involved in the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.  The bank robbers’ getaway car had sustained damage from gunfire and a broken windshield.  Driving with a damaged windshield is a violation of Section 26710 of the California Vehicle Code.  We left a citation on the dash.

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11:26 a.m.  We headed upstairs.  Vintage LAPD uniforms dating back to the late nineteenth century were on display on the museum’s second floor.

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IMG_1696The second floor also featured an extensive exhibit on the history of the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the more notable incidents in the history of California law enforcement…

IMG_1698  …and another on the North Hollywood robbery.  We attempted to interview the two perpetrators.  Being mannequins, they were uncooperative.

IMG_169912:14 p.m.  We took the elevator downstairs to the gift shop, where I picked up a copy of the authorized biography of Jack Webb.  We concluded that the Los Angeles Police Museum is one of city’s more interesting historical attractions, and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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