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Arjuna and Krishna at the Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic))

Over the past few years, the number of major museums in Los Angeles has exploded, with the Broad, Marciano, the Main Museum, and Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) joining the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Hammer, and the Getty. There are still quite a few under-the-radar museums, however, that play important roles in Los Angeles’s rich and varied cultural mosaic. From an animatronic recreation of an Indian epic, to a celebration of the San Fernando Valley, below are a few of our favorites.

Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum

When: Monday–Thursday, 11am-6pm; Friday, 11am-5pm; Saturday–Sunday, 11am-5:30pm (tours with reservation only; $10 per person, 310.845.9333, info@BGmuseum.com)
Where: Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum (3764 Watseka Ave, Culver City, Los Angeles)

For many of us, the mention of “animatronics” conjures up childhood memories of science exhibits or perhaps Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree, but at the Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum, they serve a higher purpose. Located next to Hare Krishna Temple in Culver City, the museum features dioramas depicting the Bhagavad-Gita, the 2,000-year-old Hindu epic. Each of the eleven scenes includes figures brought to life through a combination of modern animatronics and ancient Indian clay-working techniques. On the 45-minute tour, a resonant recorded narration guides visitors from a battlefield scene with the tale’s hero Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Lord Krishna, to the cycle of reincarnation, and onto the many fantastical manifestations of Krishna. Opened in 1977, the museum had fallen into a state of disrepair by the mid-90s, however a 2016 renovation restored it to its intended splendor.  

Heritage Square Museum (photo by Smart Destinations, via Flickr)

Heritage Square Museum

When: Friday–Sunday (and Federal Holiday Mondays), 11:30am–4:30pm (guided tours hourly from noon–3pm, $10 adults; $8 seniors; $5 children, ages 6–12)
Where: Heritage Square Museum (3800 Homer Street, Montecito Heights, Los Angeles)

Heritage Square Museum is like a slice of Victorian-era Los Angeles frozen in time. In response to Los Angeles’s rapid urban development in the ’60s — and the related destruction of countless historic structures — a group of concerned citizens banded together to form the Cultural Heritage Foundation of Southern California. This nonprofit began to relocate threatened buildings to a plot of land along the Los Angeles River in Montecito Heights. This is where the eight historic buildings that make up the Heritage Square Museum now reside. These stately residences provide a glimpse of Los Angeles during the early days of California’s statehood, before orange groves and oil fields were replaced by freeways and film studios.

Valley Relics Museum (photo by The Lamb Family, via Flickr)

Valley Relics Museum

When: New location opens in October
Where: Van Nuys Airport (16461 Sherman Way, Van Nuys, California)

The stereotype of “The Valley” is of a bland, culture-less wasteland, but the area north of Beverly Hills has a rich and fascinating history. Filled to the rafters with artifacts, the Valley Relics Museum is committed to preserving that history. Showcasing the collection of founder Tommy Gelinas, the museum holdings include classic cars, neon signs, historic photos, and other pieces of material culture that define the San Fernando Valley. After five years, the museum has outgrown its Chatsworth location, and will be reopening in two hangars at the Van Nuys Airport — offering double the space — next month.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park

When: Crucifixion and Resurrection are presented Tuesday–Sunday, 10am-noon & 2pm–4pm, on the hour. The Last Supper is open daily, 9am–4:30pm.
Where: Forest Lawn Memorial Park (1712 S Glendale Ave, Glendale, California)

In between the rows of celebrity tombs and historic headstones, the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale boasts two of the largest religious paintings in the Americas. “The Crucifixion” (1897) a 195-foot-long painting by Polish artist Jan Styka, depicts the dramatic event as a history painting, with the crucifixion pushed off to one side, as crowds gather and the desert landscape unfurls in the distance. It is paired with “The Resurrection” (1965) by American artist Robert Clark, which depicts the risen Christ gazing upon an opening in the heavens. The massive paintings are protected behind curtains which are drawn in theatrical fashion on the hour so visitors can catch a glimpse. Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum also holds a recreation of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” created out of stained glass, presenting a mix of reverence and kitsch. This impressive technical feat took seven years to complete, three more than the original painting.

Wishtoyo Foundation’s Chumash Village in Malibu (photo by The City Project, via Flickr)

Wishtoyo Chumash Village

When: Tours by appointment only (805.323.7023, luhuiisha@wishtoyo.org)
Where: Wishtoyo Chumash Village (33904 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, California)

Long before the Spanish arrived in California, the Chumash occupied a stretch of coastal land from Morro Bay all the way down to Malibu. (Several local place names such as Malibu, Nipomo, and Ojai are derived from Chumash words.) On a four-acre site in Nicholas Canyon County Beach in Malibu sits the Wishtoyo Chumash Village, an authentic recreation of a Chumash settlement. The village has several traditional dwellings — known as ‘ap ‘aps — and long canoes called tomols, as well as tools and crafts that paint a vivid picture of what life was like for thousands of years before European colonization. The village offers educational tours for students and other visitors, and is an important site for inter-tribal events and public ceremonies, fulfilling its role as both a historical locale and a living habitat.

Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire.

4 replies on “Five Offbeat Los Angeles Art Museums, from Diorama Displays to Relics from the Valley”

  1. The Bhagavad Gita Diorama place isn’t “next to” ISKON, it is ISKON. Tell me, would you send your readers to a Scientology “museum”? I doubt it very much.

    1. i wouldn’t conflate the hari krishnas with scientology. there was no hard sell when we went, hari krishna wasn’t even mentioned.

      1. “There was no hard sell when we went”. LOL! “Hari Krishna wasn’t even mentioned” Oh geez. ROTFL. Whew. Well done. Carry on. You’ve clearly done your research.

        1. that statement is based on my personal experience there. not sure how you can argue with that. whatever problems there are within ISKCON, I did not find this museum to be a recruitment tool in the same way that the scientology museum is.

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