They destroyed the soul of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
The completely redesigned museum re-opened at the end of 2015, but I finally got a chance to check it out last week. The exhibits are smart, crisp, pristine and interesting. But museum is no longer fun.
Ironically, the outside of the Petersen used to be sterile, short-changing the personality inside. Now, it's just the opposite: The museum's new facade is ambitious and bold... while the inside is surprisingly sterile.
The anal/Virgo in me loved the new, clean setup. It's well-organized, pristine and doesn't distract from the cars.
But the Angeleno enthusiast in me misses the old museum, with its re-creation of early 20th Century L.A. streetscapes. The old museum was also much more kid-friendly, and the new one is truly for the car enthusiast. It was perfect for my dad, who was visiting, but I imagine my kids would get antsy after awhile.
David Ulin shared my disappointment in the L.A. Times:
When my son Noah was little, the Petersen Automotive Museum — the car museum, we used to call it — was one of the touchstones of his world. In many ways, they grew up together; the Petersen opened on June 11, 1994, only a few months before Noah was born. Beginning when he was 1, we went to the museum around once a week, and we quickly developed a routine that lasted for a decade or so: Start with the immersive streetscape on the ground floor, with its trolley homage to Laurel and Hardy (Noah always spent time in the driver's seat), its Helms Bakery bread truck, its grocery store and auto showroom, then move on to the second floor, where there was a fully detailed hot rod shop and all those movie cars. Our visits would generally wrap up in the third floor playroom.
The new museum no longer plays by such irreverent rules. We visited, finally, a Sunday or so ago. As per the advice of the docent, we took the elevator to the third floor and worked our way down — exactly the opposite of how we used to navigate the space.
The new museum is themed by floor: History, Industry, Artistry. Cars and motorcycles are arrayed like, yes, museum pieces: static, sterile, separated from environment. This has long been my issue with museums, the notion that they strip art of context — or more accurately, impose a “museum” context of their own.
This new museum was efficient, even comprehensive, in its way, but it wasn’t much fun. It didn’t stir us to do much except keep moving, one display to the next. We stopped and admired the motorcycles (Noah is a rider), and the theme cars. We glanced at the production galleries and the performance vehicles. Yet there were few points of intersection, little for us to do but look.
Not only that, but the personality of the place, its connection to the city, was no longer clear. “It used to be a museum about Los Angeles,” Noah said once we reached the ground floor. “Now it’s just a museum.”
Exactly my thoughts. The Petersen used to be alive. Now it just feels like... a museum. (As for the outside, well, LA Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne notes that the museum "has embraced its inner Michael Bay."
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I'm always a sucker for history and the past, and checking out classic and historic automobiles is always interesting. Some shots from our afternoon at the new Petersen:
This 1900 Smith is the oldest surviving gasoline powered vehicle built in Los Angeles.
OK, the kids would absolutely get a kick out of seeing the "Back to the Future" DeLorean
The infamous "Breaking Bad" Pontiac Aztec
Replica of the first practical car
David Hockney art car
Keith Haring art car
Original electric cars