When the World Came to Westwood: The Fowler Museum at 50
By Mary Daily
Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Nigeria's Yoruba people have an unusually high incidence of nonidentical twins. They believe that each pair shares one soul and that the premature death of one endangers the other—an acute fear in a part of the world with high infant-mortality rates, particularly for twins, who have lower birth weights. So, as stand-ins for deceased twins, they carve wooden statuettes, or ere ibeji, and lavish them with love. They get oiled, washed, sung to, danced with and adorned with jewelry and money.
This fall, these expressive effigies can be seen up close, many miles away, in Los Angeles, at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Double Fortune, Double Trouble: Art for Twins Among the Yoruba is one of eight special exhibitions celebrating the museum's 50th anniversary. And, typical of the Fowler, not just one or two figures will be on exhibit, but a total of 250, so viewers can gain a broad understanding. (All of the works on these pages will be on view beginning October 13. See http://fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/fowler-fifty)
For half a century, the museum that's now the Fowler has made the arts and cultural wonders of the non-Western world and the indigenous Americas accessible to scholars for study and to the public for enlightenment. Renowned for pioneering exhibitions and scholarly publications, engaging public programs and educational outreach, the Fowler holds a research collection that exceeds 120,000 objects of art and material culture and 4 million archaeological items.
"The Fowler Museum is one of the most unique and important cultural institutions in Los Angeles," says Michael Govan, Los Angeles County Museum of Art CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. "It offers a truly global view of artistic and cultural traditions, serving a critically important role in this diverse metropolis."
Treasures in the Basement
The museum's beginnings date back to the 1930s, says Vice Chancellor Emeritus Elwin Svenson '48, M.A. '50, Ed.D. '54, when UCLA archaeology scholars were already excavating and collecting. But it was in the early 1960s that then-Chancellor Franklin Murphy gleaned 3,000 pieces of cultural material from across campus and placed them in what is now Perloff Hall. He called the repository the Laboratory of Ethnic Art and Technology and appointed Ralph C. Altman, a gallery owner who taught in UCLA's art department, as curator of ethnic collections.
The year 1964 brought two major milestones. The collection moved to the basement of Haines Hall, its home for the next 28 years. And Murphy negotiated a gift of 30,000 objects from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome that propelled UCLA into the top tier of American institutions holding African and Pacific arts.
Increasingly, the growing collection served as a catalyst for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and the museum began to publish scholarly volumes based on original field research. Today, most major gifts culminate in an exhibition and publication. Collections inform the research, which is reflected in the exhibitions. It's a circular relationship possible only in an academic environment.
By the early '70s, the museum was carving a singular niche—between art and anthropology—blurring established disciplinary boundaries. It was then that the first faculty director, Pinhas Pierre Delougaz, renamed it the UCLA Museum of Cultural History.
A Space to Call Its Own
Still lacking gallery space, though, the museum began mounting annual exhibitions in UCLA's Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery. The first, in 1974, highlighted gifts from more than 200 Southern California families. Soon, those exhibitions were traveling and including multimedia elements to contextualize objects that became "works of art" when removed from their original locations. In this way, the Fowler became a trendsetter, providing contextual interpretation that enabled viewers to make associations between objects, their origins and the world at large.
By 1975, the collection's size and quality ranked the museum among the nation's top four university museums, which remains true today. Also that year, the man who would be the "academic architect" of the Fowler, according to Svenson, was appointed faculty director. Christopher Donnan M.A. '65, an archaeologist specializing in Peru, held the position for 21 years, during which time the collections from the ancient Americas gained international stature.
In his first meeting with then-Chancellor Charles E. Young M.A. '57, Ph.D. '60, Murphy's successor, Donnan received a mandate—to build a museum building. Plans were drawn for a $22-million structure—to be funded with private gifts and state resources—to house the collection and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
The Fowler Behind The Fowler
St. Louis native Francis E. Fowler Jr. developed an early interest in art when his grandfather brought home memorabilia from world travels. After college, Fowler joined his father's insurance business but spent his spare time collecting, among other treasures, pieces of fine silver. He went on to patent a secret recipe that led to the resurgence of Southern Comfort, a drink brand that had gone bust during Prohibition. Fowler's new Southern Comfort, a sweet whiskey, became a favorite of ladies during World War II and of rock singer Janis Joplin in the 1960s. Fowler moved his family to Los Angeles in 1944 and in 1968 established the Francis E. Fowler, Jr. Foundation Museum in Westwood to house his collections; four years later he moved it to Beverly Hills. He died in 1975. His son kept the Beverly Hills museum open until 1983.
Meanwhile, Donnan opened a gallery space in Haines Hall for small displays accompanied by short publications. He and curator George R. Ellis began bringing in K-12 students, setting the stage for the rich public programs the Fowler offers today, geared to families and a diverse population.
Then, in 1983, Svenson secured the lead gift for the building from the family of the late Francis E. Fowler Jr., creator of Southern Comfort sweet whiskey (see sidebar). Ground was broken in 1987, and the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA opened in 1992.
World Art, World-Class
One of the four inaugural exhibitions, the Fowler's silver collection, remains on permanent display. Another, Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture, set a new standard for the Fowler, incorporating loans from other museums and private collectors. Its curator was Assistant Director Doran H. Ross, who would succeed Donnan as director.
By 1990, the Fowler's stature placed it firmly alongside such world-class institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Getty Center in a cultural corridor drawing visitors and scholars from around the globe.
"The Fowler is an unmatched treasure," says Christopher Waterman, dean of UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture. "The museum fosters understanding across cultures, which is so critical in our increasingly global world."
From a Fowler public program
UCLA Gluck Groupa Pendari
The appointment in 2001 of current director Marla C. Berns '73, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '86 signaled the Fowler's intention to continue engaging scholars and the public in rich, unexpected ways. "Marla is the first really professional museum director the Fowler has had," Svenson says of Berns, who came to UCLA from the university museum at UC Santa Barbara and is a specialist in African art. Berns made her mark right away. She created a long-term exhibition of prime works, Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. She dropped "Cultural History" from the Fowler's name, believing it had become too limiting, and eliminated admission charges. She also began inviting contemporary artists to create works in conjunction with or in response to Fowler exhibitions.
Going forward, she plans to present more new work by international artists and continue to produce exhibitions and publications that draw on interdisciplinary research and innovation. "Our goal," she says, "is to provide unparalleled ways to experience little-known global arts and artists and learn about them in an environment that is at once educational and inspirational."
Franklin Murphy would be pleased.