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Photos: A Tunnel Under The Southwest Museum Now Hosts An Eerie Art Exhibit

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A tunnel that serves as the pedestrian entrance to the Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington had long been underutilized. Now it has taken on a new life as a space for kinda-creepy contemporary art pieces.

It can be a little eerie to peer at a disembodied head in the long tunnel that leads up into the Southwest Museum. The exhibit, "Tunnel Entrance," by artists Thomas McDonell and Brock Enright, is one that engages a number of senses. You begin outside, gazing up at the entrance. You might be tempted to rush in, but if you are observant, you will see a plaque has been placed on one of the rocks. It's a subtle piece of perspective, and one that hints at what's to come.

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian was founded in 1907 in downtown Los Angeles, but moved in 1914 to its current hillside location. Its founder was Charles Lummis, was a writer, photographer and anthropologist who once walked from Ohio to California. He was also the first city editor of the Los Angeles Times.

The Museum has collected a wealth of Native American artifacts, as well as many other items from early California history. In 2003, the Southwest Museum was facing financial troubles and merged with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Autry President and CEO W. Richard West, Jr. said that at that time, the assets of the Southwest Museum were transferred to the Autry, including the museum's collections. The Autry then became responsible for safeguarding the collection.

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"We're in the final stage of finishing up the new collections building in Burbank," he told LAist. "That will be a state-of-the-art facility of the collations concerning both their care and increased availability to the public."

West, who is of Native American descent himself, remembers going to the Southwest Museum as a child of about 6 or 7 with his father. Having acted as the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, West was asked to sit on the the Native Stewardship Council after the two museums merged, and became CEO in 2012.

The Southwest Museum was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation last January. The organization has been working with the museum to figure out its future, and it's through this partnership that Tunnel Entrance was brought to the site. (You can share your thoughts on what you'd like to see in the museum's future here.)

"What [the Autry] has tried to do with the National Trust is to experiment, if you will, with different uses of that space to indicate how that site might be used in the future in ways that might be sustainable for it," he said. "It's sort of a nice, edgy, up-to-date way to use the tunnel."

The pedestrian tunnel is an easier means to access the museum than to hike your way up the hill. According to Maren Dougherty, the museum's Director of Communications and Marketing, the museum's founder had originally envisioned patrons trekking up the hill, though it was later decided an easier access would be desirable. So, the tunnel was built to allow a simpler access point. This comes in handy especially now, as many visitors are coming via the Metro Gold Line or on foot, and are not driving up to the parking lot at the top of the hill.

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Initially, the 281-foot-long tunnel was full of a series of historical dioramas depicting what live was like for Native Americans. However, because the temperature in the tunnel was hard to control and leaks could occur, it was difficult to preserve them. They have all been removed and put into safer storage, though the museum still occasionally brings them back out.

McDonnell and Enright have filled those empty spaces with a number of curious pieces. McDonnell told LAist that at their core, they're sculptures, created in response to a historical space. A repeating image is stark white mold of a man's head. It's actually a mold of Enright's head, McDonell revealed. When you first encounter the space, entering from the street, the head is attached to an entire body and depicts a sleeping man. You can smell the baby powder that dusts the peace. Elsewhere, however, the head is seen sans body, occasionally adored with a tennis ball or a soda can. Outside of the tunnel, the head can be seen affixed in seemingly random places, peering out at the sweeping views of the city as if in quiet contemplation.

McDonell is also an actor—you might recognize him from the CW's The 100. As he strolled with us through the tunnel, he stopped at a tableau of a crushed shopping cart smothered with tennis balls. One of the shopping cart's wheels is wired to spin constantly, creating a ticking sound. Some of tennis balls, McDonell explains, were fished out of the Arroyo Seco Golf Course in South Pasadena. Those he refers to as the 'special ones.' They have a certain smell. A nearby Coke can with the top still closed in another exhibit was finished out of a river in Colorado. He said he hasn't collected quite as much trash to repurpose as art as one might imagine.

LAist photographer Perhansa Skallerup quipped that these pieces are like future artifacts. When we're all dead, people will still be finding our tennis balls and soda cans in bodies of water.

One interesting tableau seems, at first, like nothing. It's a video screen that broadcasts a looped video of a fairly static image. There's a cup from Jack in the Box, an old box, a piece of styrofoam. McDonnell nudges us to stand in the correct spot. When standing at just the right place, the screen aligns with the trash. McDonell explains that this is about perspective. Being in a long tunnel, that might be easy to lose. It can be a little spooky, but mostly serene. You might lose your sense of time, too.

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Guests to Tunnel Vision are also invited to enter the museum. Currently on display are about 100 rare pieces of Pueblo pottery from the 16th century to the present. There is a conservation room were one can peer inside the glass doors and see a number of special freezers, which Dougherty told us is to kill pests found on collected items, as obviously, the collections cannot be sprayed with chemicals. You might also go for a stroll in the museum's scenic community garden.

Meanwhile, over at the Autry, there's an exhibition and sale of American Western fine art you might want to check out, too.

The Southwest Museum is located at 234 Museum Drive in Mt. Washington. "Tunnel Entrance" will be on display throughout Feb. 27. The museum is open Thur.-Sat from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.