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Los Angeles Museums

A sign on Wilshire boasts "Museum Row on the Miracle Mile." Five museums in three blocks justify the title. Include two more within easy reach of the Row and you're set for several days of leisurely contemplation punctuated by occasional bursts of interaction.

exterior of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, image
Photo caption
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called LACMA, is the largest art museum in the western United States.

Standing among this gathering of institutions, it's easy to verify the "Museum Row" claim. "Miracle Mile" is less obvious. It wasn't always so.

The strip of Wilshire roughly from La Brea to Fairfax once sported many nice stores. Described as "a linear downtown," the development is said to have been the first shopping district specifically designed for motorists.

Although some of the Moderne store architecture still exists, the miracle proved transitory. If you want to shop, Rodeo Drive isn't far away. But if you want to see a diverse array of museums, you're in the right spot. We visited the five on "Museum Row" and two others nearby.

George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries
There's a lot of asphalt in L.A., and it isn't all on the roads. Some of it bubbles up as viscous goo to form pools that, if they weren't created by Mother Nature, would drive the EPA into a lather of indignation. This has been going on for thousands of years and you can see a fine example in front of the Page Museum. Look for the mammoths in distress.

A few thousand years ago, the L.A. basin was home not only to mammoths but an array of now extinct beasts. Since tar pools frequently were disguised as watering holes by a thin layer of water, animals looking for a drink easily became mired. This attracted predators, which also became mired in a chain of events worthy of Poe. Slowly they'd all sink into the ooze. The animals evidently were slow learners as thousands and thousands of skeletons have been excavated.

The Page Museum displays a good array of reconstructed skeletons-mammoths, wolves, giant sloths, saber-tooth cats, vultures, and the only human pulled from the pits. La Brea Woman appears to have been a murder victim (the classic blow to the skull with a blunt object) 9,000 years ago.

Murals and dioramas show the L.A. area as it was back then, a lush, if apparently fierce and unforgiving place. There's a glassed-in paleontology lab, and many ancillary exhibits, among them a good, 16-minute film and pots of tar with plungers you can work up and down to experience how possessively viscous the stuff can be, to put the skeletons and reconstructed animals in perspective. Afterward, walk around in Hancock Park, which surrounds the museum and has numerous ooze spots. Watch your step.

George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries: 5801 Wilshire Boulevard. Admission: $6 (adults); $3.50 (seniors and students with ID); $2 (ages 5 to 10); free to all the first Tuesday of the month. Telephone: (213) 857-6311.

Petersen Automotive Museum
Car museums have come a long way from the classic fender-to-fender lineup of vehicles. These days they're heavy on interpretation, and the Petersen uses some of its displays to explore development of the Los Angeles car culture and the auto's effect on California life.

The first exhibit is a diorama presenting an American Underslung touring car stuck in a muddy rut, steam wafting from the radiator. It's strikingly reminiscent-almost a parody-of the mammoth stuck in tar at the Page Museum. Other dioramas and re-created street scenes briefly mark the evolution of gas stations, the CHP (an officer and his '32 Harley lurk behind a billboard), car insurance, roadside eateries, and other car-influenced facets of life.

Upstairs, cars are presented for themselves, as works of art. Displays of classics, motorcycles, race cars, Hollywood cars (such as Garbo's 1925 Lincoln), hot rods (among them an unusual translation of a '36 Packard 120 sedan). You can sit in an Indy car (no seat, no cushion, no comfort, tight squeeze). And there are displays of car-inspired art.

The Petersen's urge to educate, while a worthy variation on static auto displays, never gets in the way of those who simply want to enjoy looking at a lot of beautiful cars.

Petersen Automotive Museum: 6060 Wilshire Boulevard. Admission: $7 (adults); $5 (seniors and students with ID); $3 (ages 5-12). Hours: Tuesday through Sunday and Monday holidays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Telephone: (213) 930-2277.

Museum of Television and Radio
Rather than a museum primarily of artifacts, this is a storehouse of programs-thousands upon thousands of them. You can enjoy shows in a more-or-less public way by watching selections continuously presented in two theaters or get one-on-one with old favorites by using a computer to select from the museum's jumbo library.

The day we visited, the museum's theater offerings included a 1957 jazz broadcast, Ward Cleaver dealing with the Beaver's refusal to eat Brussels sprouts, highlights from the 1968 political conventions, the first episode of "Danger UXB," and many others. In the radio listening room, earphones tune you in to a similar day-long variety of presentations.

To personalize the experience, use the computer system resembling the "Muze" computers in CD stores to select radio and television programs for your individual enjoyment. You don't even need to know a program's precise title; the computer summons up everything with a name that sounds like what you ask it to find. You then go to a screen in the viewing room for the show.

It had been a long time since we'd seen Emma Peel shoot the cork out of Steed's champagne bottle (those introductions to "Mystery" just don't do it). In the viewing area, a room full of screens and earphones, we were pleased to discover how gracefully "The Avengers" has withstood the last 28 years.

Although the museum isn't primarily an exhibitor of artifacts, on our visit there were many caricatures by Hirschfeld and a display of makeup used to create some of the characters seen in descendants of "Star Trek."

Go prepared with a short list of old broadcast favorites.

Museum of Television and Radio: 465 North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills (corner of N. Beverly Drive and S. Santa Monica Blvd.). Admission: $6 (adults); $4 (students and seniors); $3 (children under 13). Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; open until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Telephone: (310) 786-1000.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
With five buildings and a sculpture garden gathered around a central court, this is a large and eclectic museum. The collections range from ancient to modern works, with individual galleries for dozens of categories: Islamic, Pre-Columbian, Renaissance, glass, photography, Impressionism, Greek and Roman among them. Be sure to pick up a map as you enter.

While the main exhibits are in the largest building, the Ahmanson, don't miss the Sculpture Garden, with its many Rodin works, tucked behind it. And be sure to take the winding, celadon-tinted, bamboo-lined ramp to the Japanese Pavilion in the complex's opposite corner.

This building, with its organically flowing lines, interior waterway, and diffuse, natural light is as much a work of art as the ceramics, textiles, calligraphy, and other creations on display. Going through this pavilion is akin to walking through a huge, hollow plant.

Works on exhibit at LACMA change fairly often and there are frequent temporary exhibitions.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 5905 Wilshire Boulevard. Admission: $7 (adults); $4 (seniors and students with valid ID); $1 (ages 6-17); free (ages 5 and younger). Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.); Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free to all the second Wednesday of each month. Closed January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25. Telephone: (213) 857-6000.

Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance
Primarily a presentation on the Holocaust, the Museum of Tolerance also "addresses the challenges brought about by multiculturalism." One takes this museum in order rather than wandering randomly, as much of it is a carefully designed, chronological examination of the origins and reality of the Holocaust, beginning in the 1920s.

The introductory exhibits are the multicultural part, and it's pretty high tech, with interactive computers and screens. Although the U.S. civil rights movement receives much attention (especially the L.A. riots following the Rodney King beating), so does the general history of intolerance, a rich field indeed. A time wall chronicles milestones of intolerance in America, starting in 1607. Another exhibit reminds visitors of jihads, crusades, expulsions, massacres throughout history. It is designed to get a person thinking, which it does, but it's also a little like "Intolerance 101."

As you're drawn through the Holocaust section by lights and sounds, the social and political background comes through on a surprisingly personal level. The words, opinions, and actions of individual persons of that time are used to illustrate points.

Each visitor is given the name of a specific individual, and follows his experiences as well as following the less personal sweep of events. At the end, you discover what became of the your individual: Some were killed, some disappeared, a very few survived. You carry away a brief, computer-generated biography and photo of the person. Ours told of Ulrich Arnheim, a Berlin schoolboy. It concludes "Ulrich and his parents were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp."

The museum takes you through the gates of a death camp, tries to instill some impression of what it was like to be in one. It makes its points.

Upstairs, there is a research center on the Holocaust with computers that visitors may use for information on many aspects of it and a collection of more traditional museum exhibits on Nazi and death camp artifacts.

Museum of Tolerance: 9786 West Pico Boulevard. Admission: $8 (adults); $6 (ages 62 and older); $5 (students with ID) $3 (ages 3-10). Hours: Monday-Thursday 10 a.m., last entry at 4 p.m.; Friday: 10 a.m., last entry 1 p.m. (November-March), last entry 3 p.m. (April-October); Sunday: 10:30 a.m., last entry 5 p.m. Telephone: (310) 553-8403.

Craft and Folk Art Museum
The Craft and Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Miniatures are smaller institutions than their neighbors. Although the CAFM has a permanent collection of several thousand objects, currently its galleries are devoted to a travelling exhibition, "Swedish Folk Art: All Tradition is Change," a survey of the best of Swedish folk art.

The 4,200-square-foot installation includes carved and painted furniture, textiles, costumes, iron sculpture, architectural details, and other items. The idea is to demonstrate the links between the traditional and the modern, the urban and the rural, and the influence of folk art in contemporary Swedish design. There's a family resource room and a series of public programs.

Most museums have a shop, but CAFM's is unusually attractive in the variety and quality of its offerings from around the world.

Craft and Folk Art Museum: 5800 Wilshire Boulevard. Admission: $4 (adults); $2.50 (seniors and students); free (under age 12). Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Telephone: (213) 937-5544.

Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures
While miniatures may be an acquired taste, one gathers that, once acquired, the taste can become a passion. How else to explain two floors crammed with miniature buildings, boats, cars, planes, furniture, and people-some of which resemble birds and monkeys dressed in 18th century finery?

Billed as "the largest, most comprehensive collection of miniatures in the world," the array began when Mrs. Kaye started building and collecting miniatures. Soon she was commissioning more, and now they're on view in the modernistic cube of a building across from LACMA.

The miniature buildings, some roughly refrigerator size, tend to be open in back so you can see the miniaturized furniture in the rooms. The street frequented by Jack the Ripper has been reproduced, a small town in the rain, Russian notables, jazz musicians in the Hollywood Bowl. A mini-tree sports a bunch of elegant mini-treehouses. Baroque music wafts through the galleries. It's a change of pace.

There's a large shop, the Petite Elite, full of miniatures and associated paraphernalia.

Museum of Miniatures: 5900 Wilshire Boulevard. Admission: $7.50 (adults); $6.50 (ages 60 and older); $5 (ages 12-21); $3 (ages 3 to 12). Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Telephone (213) 937-MINI.

Photography courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.