The Huntington’s Founders Day Was a Departure From Previous Programs

Story by Sandy Masuo: Senior Writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington
Published on Mar 22, 2023

This year’s Founders’ Day event was a lively departure from previous programs. Rather than spotlighting a single narrative to celebrate, it featured a suite of stories from across The Huntington’s collections. President Karen R. Lawrence introduced the evening as a celebration of both the collections and the expertise that makes them come alive. “Here at The Huntington, we’re about stories of peoples, of landscape, of objects,” Lawrence said. “Our collections allow us to look again and again at our history—retelling, re-imagining, and, yes, reinterrogating.”

Lawrence emphasized the rich history of the San Gabriel Valley and the greater Los Angeles region, “where the Huntingtons wanted to make a difference.” And, pursuing this notion, each presenter explored the theme of finding one’s place to thrive in the Southern California landscape.

Lawrence noted that the evening was also a celebration of The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW). Founded in 2004, this collaborative teaching, research, and outreach institute is focused on the history and culture of the American West, which made ICW Director William Deverell, a professor of history at USC, the ideal host for this year’s Founders’ Day program, titled “Stories We Tell.”

Deverell kicked off the presentations with a story that unfolded close to home: the Altadena burial site of Owen Brown (1824–1889), son of abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) who led the ill-fated 1859 raid of a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—a violent spark that made the Civil War all but inevitable.

While conducting research at The Huntington on Brown’s children, Deverell discovered photos in the Horatio Nelson Rust Collection of a multiracial group of people gathered for the laying of Owen Brown’s headstone, circa 1899. Rust, an abolitionist, built a lifelong friendship with John Brown. After the war, Rust relocated to Southern California and encouraged a handful of Brown’s 20 children to do likewise. Deverell discussed the photos with Silas Munro, the faculty co-chair of the MFA program in graphic design at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a partner at Polymode, an innovative design firm with offices in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Inglewood, California.

When Munro first saw the photos, he said he was surprised by the unexpected connection between the Civil War and Southern California. He and Deverell explored the notion that Brown’s children were escaping the complicated legacy of their father, a man who was on the right side of history in his opposition to slavery but difficult to live with.

In California, Munro observed, Brown’s children yearned for a hopeful transformation. “For me … it feels very much like a story of migration,” Munro said. “An American story, a California story, and very much a human story of a family seeking redemption.”

While the Brown children migrated to California to reinvent themselves, Eve Babitz (1943–2021), whose archives came to The Huntington last year, was a native Angeleno who spent her life documenting—in her writing, photos, and visual art—the Los Angeles that she inhabited as well as the cast of characters who shared it with her. Karla Nielsen, The Huntington’s curator of literary collections, observed that Babitz was not only shaped by her place in the California landscape but also contributed to the developing mystique of Los Angeles.

“The main protagonist of most of her writing, or perhaps the main love interest, if she herself is a protagonist, is the city of Los Angeles,” Nielsen said. “In the Huntington Library, her papers join those of Los Angeles Times reporters Jack Smith, Al Martinez, and Patt Morrison—writers whose perspectives on the city shaped decades of public perception—as well as numerous historical collections documenting how the city was built, electrified, irrigated, and populated.”

Photographer Laura Aguilar (1959–2018) was also a native Angeleno, yet her works capture a very different version of LA. Her photographs define her sense of place in the context of underrepresented groups with which she identified and in the natural world. Pilar Tompkins Rivas, chief curator and deputy director of curatorial and collections at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, said: “Aguilar’s presence and identity was a nexus around which she tethered the themes and the peoples in her images. Through her practice, [Aguilar] made herself and others visible, staking her claim to space and shining a light on the Chicanx, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabled communities she was a part of.”

Just as Aguilar’s photos made her subjects more visible, so has The Huntington’s trove of more than 300 glass plate negatives of photos taken in Old Chinatown from the 1890s through the first decades of the 20th century—a collection donated by author Lisa See.

In the early 1860s, thousands of Chinese workers were employed to complete the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. Many of these migrants and their descendants settled in LA, forming the first Chinese ethnic enclave in the city. In the 1930s, a major portion of Old Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station.

Thanks to digital technology, prints created from The Huntington’s fragile glass negatives are resurrecting Old Chinatown in a virtual space through ICW’s Chinatown History Project. “[The collection is] a major discovery for Chinese American history and also for the history of photography,” said Li Wei Yang, The Huntington’s curator of Pacific Rim collections. “This rare cache of photography created by and for the Chinese offers an intimate and irreplaceable visual journey into a long-lost chapter of Los Angeles history.”

The need for a sense of place is not limited to people. The Huntington’s collections include plants of great scientific and cultural importance from around the globe that thrive in Southern California thanks to the expertise and care of botanical staff. Sean Lahmeyer, The Huntington’s plant collections and conservation manager, traced the lineage of the Montezuma Cypresses (Taxodium mucronatum) growing at The Huntington. In 1912, William Hertrich, the Huntington’s first superintendent of the gardens, collected the seeds that eventually grew into The Huntington’s 13 mature Montezuma Cypress trees from Mexico’s Chapultepec Park, one of the world’s oldest urban parks. These trees, which can live for thousands of years, are deeply rooted in the history of Mexico and its Indigenous cultures.

In the last decade, the Mexican government has listed the Montezuma Cypress, the national tree, as a conservation priority due to its high biocultural value and its increased mortality rate throughout the country. “As Mexico works to back up this [species] with multiple genetic clones, our collection offers an invaluable resource to this endeavor,” Lahmeyer said. The Huntington is working to share genetic material with Mexican scientists, which will bring the story of these plants—an iconic part of The Huntington’s landscape—full circle.

The evening’s mix of stories and diversity of voices highlighted not only the extraordinary breadth and depth of The Huntington’s collections but also the intellectual vitality that brings them to life and keeps them growing.

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