One of my favorite things to do wherever I go is find the museums. In addition to coffee, museums are my thing.
For me, the best thing about visiting these institutions is looking at art that challenges the viewer to confront his or her own perceptions of what art is and what it can do, in both conscious and subconscious ways. It’s really easy for us in 2015 to look at a Picasso and say “that’s great art,” but it was difficult for the audiences who first saw the work to wrap their heads around what was in front of them — mirroring reactions to some of the contemporary art we see today. In the same vein, there are many objects of historical significances that need to be preserved for future generations to learn from. I like thinking about the progression of art history, reading about the artists and coming up with my own interpretations.
However, I know that museums in general sound overwhelming or maybe boring to a lot of people. But I can assure you that you don’t need to know anything about art or art history to enjoy a museum, and that a place you might not think of as a museum can count as one. A lot of people ask me about the best ones to go to in the area, so I present to you Zoë’s Very Official Southern California Museum Guide.
“I haven’t gone to any museums in the area, nor do I know much about art history. What do I start with?”
My initial recommendation is to try some of the bigger museums with big collections you can peruse to find what you like. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as you may already know, is one of my favorite museums. Located on Wilshire Boulevard near the Farmer’s Market and the Grove, it has an incredibly diverse collection spread out over a large campus and fantastic programming. In addition to an extensive European catalog, the museum boasts large Islamic and Asian art collections. Some of the best shows I’ve ever been to, including a retrospective of Tim Burton and the post-impressionists from Van Gogh to Kandinsky, were held at LACMA. If you are interested in art but feel overwhelmed, this is the place to start. If you’re a student, the museum offers a very affordable membership option that pays for itself.
The Getty Center in Los Angeles is also a well-known museum worth attending. The Getty’s collection comprises of a lot of medieval, Renaissance and baroque art — not much in the way of post-1900 works. When I went, I thought the illuminated manuscripts were pretty cool. There are some modern sculptures out on the grounds of the museum, which has a few gorgeous gardens and vistas, but not many. If you don’t like modern art in general, this is your museum. Admission is free for everyone, but you do have to pay for parking. The only thing I don’t particularly like is the museum’s location — it’s off of the 405 Freeway (yikes) and close to UCLA.
Rounding out the category is the Norton Simon in Pasadena. What I really like about the Norton Simon is the diverse range of art on display. From South and Southeast Asian art to Flemish tapestries to contemporary photography, the Norton Simon has it. The museum also has a great sculpture garden and lily pond, which brings back memories for me of Claude Monet’s home in Giverny. The Norton Simon is much smaller in scale compared to LACMA or The Getty, which makes it a good museum to start out with and soak in. It’s also feasible to spend an hour or two at the museum before going down the street to Old Town Pasadena. Admission is free for students.
“I want to see conceptual art.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has some pretty interesting, but weird stuff. You can see your standard Warhol or Lichtenstein, but MOCA has a large collection of pieces that incorporate aspects like film and sound into painting and sculpture. I went to a great Rothko exhibit here, but I really enjoyed just walking around MOCA and seeing what was on display. It’s not a big museum, and has free admission for everyone every Thursday.
If you find yourself in Palm Springs, you should definitely stop by the Palm Springs Art Museum. For being a small museum in the middle of the desert, it has an impressive catalog that includes some Warhol, Ruscha and Abramović. Granted, the museum does have a lot of Native American and Mesoamerican art worth looking at. However, the architecture of the museum itself lends for a really interesting postmodern experience. There’s one piece there that definitely freaks everybody out. I highly recommend making it part of your Palm Springs excursion.
“I really love the outdoors.”
The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is one of my favorite Southern California spots. It’s kind of hard to describe the Huntington because of how vast the grounds are, but the beautiful botanical garden envelops buildings that hold true treasures. The Huntington collection is especially famous for Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie, but also hosts a Shakespeare first folio, a Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and more. The Huntington offers a really rare collection in a beautiful setting, and SoCal residents are really lucky to have the access.
“I’m not really into paintings or sculpture.”
The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles can be considered a kind of scientific museum. Much like the way traditional art museums educate the public about art history, planetariums and observatories educate the public about scientific history. Check out the observatory’s exhibits about the solar system and devices used for measuring and viewing the universe. Griffith’s public star parties are also fun to attend, but a nightmare for parking. Admission and parking are free.
The California Science Center in Los Angeles is really awesome, and I’ve been going there since elementary school. (Zoë fun fact: my senior prom was held there.) It’s more of a museum of science than a museum of art, which still counts! It’s a great place to take kids because of how many hands-on activities there are and living things to see. My favorite exhibit I’ve seen there is the one they had about mummies from around the world, but I really want to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. You can also see IMAX movies in 3D about science here, which can be pretty fun.
Next door is the Natural History Museum. The museum has a lot of taxidermy, gems and minerals, fossils and insect-related stuff. Again, it’s a really awesome place to take kids — including big kids (you know who you are) — who are interested in dinosaurs or animals. This museum is also part of a group that’s responsible for the La Brea Tar Pits, which is another kind of natural history museum we’re lucky to have in L.A. That spot, which includes a museum I’ve never been to, is next to LACMA.
“I’ve been to all of those places. Where else can I go?”
In addition to some of these big institutions, I’ve also visited some smaller niche museums of note. If you’re interested in learning more about the Holocaust, you should really go to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. (Warning: A trip to this museum can be very emotionally draining, as you might imagine.) The next time you go to the L.A. County Fair at the Pomona Fairplex, walk through the NHRA Motorsports Museum and take a look at its vintage racing vehicles. The Autry Museum in Los Angeles also has a renowned collection of Western art that chronicles the birth and growth of California and Native Americans.
Other museums in SoCal that I have not been to yet (but heard good things about) include the Getty Villa, the Hammer Museum, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the U.S.S. Iowa or U.S.S. Midway and several cultural heritage museums. Once you start going to museums and seeing what you like, you’ll find places all over the world you’ll want to go. And along the way, you’ll build your own knowledge of history and art history. It’ll be great. I promise.
Do you have museum recommendations for me? Let’s talk about it in the comments.