What The Hell's Actually Going On At America's Top Car Museum?

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Remember yesterday how I wrote about an article in the LA Times that claimed the museum was taking a "major detour" and would shift its focus to motorcycles and French cars? I talked to the director of the Petersen, and he thinks that story is bullshit. What's going on?

I regret that I wasn't able to get in touch with Petersen folks yesterday before we ran our story, because, honestly, I found the Times story puzzling at best. The reporter was claiming things that sounded counter to the direction and focus of the Petersen that I'd known for a long time, so I'm glad I had the chance to talk to the Petersen's director, Terry Karges.


Terry Karges started off by saying that the headline, "Petersen Automotive Museum Takes A Major Detour" is "absolutely incorrect." Karges told me that the museum is not planning any sort of detour in mission, but rather is planning to vastly improve the facilities and collection, and noted that the collection hasn't been culled or markedly improved in over 20 years.

Karges was disturbed by the Times writer's interest in "creating a fuss about board members being on both the Mullin and Petersen boards" which he maintained was not unusual nor represented any conflicts of interest of any type. Karges also said the reporter was strangely focused on the subject of avant-garde French cars like the Mullin museum specializes in; Karges said the reporter "wouldn't get off the French curve on that thing."


He said the implication that because the Chairman of the Petersen board runs a respected auto museum focusing on French cars, then he must be planning to turn the Petersen into a larger version of his other museum is absurd. For one thing, if the guy loves avant-garde French cars so much, that's fine, because he already has a museum full of them.

As far as the motorcycle thing goes, Karges did discuss his old days racing motorcycles and his enjoyment of them, but in no way did he intend to convey that the Petersen would be focusing on motorcycles to the exclusion of any cars. The Petersen will remain primarily an Automotive museum.


Karges told me, "The LA Times story couldn't be further from the truth. I don't know what was trying to be accomplished."

I spoke with Jerry Hirsch, the reporter who wrote the original story. Hirsch maintained that all the relevant facts are in the story, and that the story came from noticing that the Petersen board

"was selling cars without notifying the public. We thought that was interesting and asked why."


And, that is a valid point — it is absolutely worth asking why. And Hirsch didn't write the headline or subhead that put the emphasis on the French cars and motorcycles. But, the article does contain this paragraph

The new plans include a greater emphasis on motorcycles and French art deco vehicles, passions that match the tastes of the museum's new leadership. The strategy was launched this year by Executive Director Terry Karges — who owns a motorcycle company, Champions Moto — and new board Chairman Peter Mullin, who also heads an auto museum in Oxnard that boasts one of the world's foremost private collections of French cars.


... which pretty clearly suggests the museum will emphasize French art deco cars and motorcycles, and Karges categorically refutes that. There's also, of course, the implication in that paragraph that shifting the focus of the museum to interests close to the board's, either personally or financially, will benefit them in some way.

Hirsch does include many other details of the museum's future plans that are completely accurate, according to my conversation with Karges, but there's also a number of implications that the cars selected for sale indicate a turning away from the museum's original mission, such as this paragraph reminding us that the Petersen family is no longer in charge:

No one from the Petersen family is around to weigh in. Petersen and his wife, Margie, had two sons, Bob and Ritchie, who were 10 and 9 when they died in a 1975 airplane crash. So there are no heirs who might request that the museum adhere to its original mission, said Brian Schippert, a former museum intern who later managed private car collections for wealthy individuals.


This does imply that the museum is turning away from its original mission, and that is the crux of what Karges finds troubling.

The folks in charge of the Petersen are certainly rich folks used to getting what they want without everyone's meddling input, and while that may in fact be a factor here, Karges complaints about the tone of the article suggesting a direction they're not actually planning do seem at least somewhat justified.


So, what are the future plans for the museum?

The Petersen is absolutely selling off about a third of the cars in the collection, but Karges made it clear that those cars were carefully considered and the museum's "crown jewels" are in no way affected. There's non-display worthy cars, cars that were never interesting enough to really be in the collection anyway, and duplicates (of which the Herbie to be sold was one).


As their statement says,

The collection has reached over 400 pieces—not only are we unable to showcase all of the vehicles, but maintaining and keeping that many cars in running order is virtually impossible. We are culling the collection for the first time in nearly 20 years, selling cars that can easily be replaced for specific exhibits or vehicles that were donated which were never intended to be or counted a part of the collection or placed on exhibit.


A board member also brings up the excellent point that

“Never changing turns us into an accumulation rather than a collection.”

It's not easy to part with cars from a collection like the Petersen's and there's no doubt a number of these cars will be ones that some people feel are too significant to part with. Karges told me that the curatorial staff knows there's no easy answer to this, as almost everybody has their own opinions of what's significant and what isn't.


There will be major architectural changes to the museum as well. The Petersen's building started life as a department store, and most of the original interior walls still exist. Walls will be removed, moved, and the entire interior will be modernized. There will be many more interactive exhibits as well. As Karges told me

"... we're working with some ex-Disney creatives and we're talking about opportunities of what we can do to immerse people in, say, the experience of racing. Art museums have things on the walls, but you sit in a car and you feel a car. A car is like wearing your personality."


There's much more emphasis on education and there's many collaborations with Pasadena's ArtCenter planned, to bring whole curricula of adult education and student educational programs to the museum. The goal here is that the Petersen will become a museum of art and design, and cars are the means by which those concepts are expressed.

Most importantly, of course, are the cars. The collection will continue to maintain a wide focus, and will collect any cars that are deemed interesting enough, from design, historical, cultural or other perspectives. There will still be a focus on Southern California Hot Rod culture, with a special emphasis on finding LA-area built cars. They'll be fully restoring one of the few remaining LA-built Muntz Jets, for example.


There will be exotic European cars, American muscle cars, working vehicles, strange Eastern European cars (I asked specifically about those), icons of Japanese car design, and everything in between, including what may be the world's finest collection of alternate-fuel vehicles.


Karges told me that the goal is to make the Petersen not just one of the premier automotive museums in the world, but one of the best art and design museums, period.

I found Karges to be quite earnest and forthcoming about the museum's future plans, and from what I heard, I'm excited to see what happens. Karges returned to the LA Times article near the end of our talk, saying

"I don't understand how selling some cars and improving the museum can be spun as bad."


That's a reasonable question. In hindsight, the choice to focus on the "French Avant Garde" angle as the stated focus of the museum feels like a cynical choice designed to get the traditional American car-enthusiast crowd most riled, even if that wasn't the intention.

Ultimately, the Petersen is changing, and we're glad the LA Times is taking notice and glad the people in charge aren't actually throwing out all the old Hudsons and replacing them with 2CVs.