Exhibition | Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions

Posted in books, exhibitions by Editor on October 29, 2013

Press release from The Huntington:

Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, 17 August 2013 — 6 January 2014

Curated by Catherine Gudis and Steven Hackel


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The life of Junípero Serra (1713–1784)—and his impact on Indian life and Califor­nia culture through his founding of missions—is the subject of an unprecedented, comprehensive, international loan exhibition opening August 17, 2013, and remaining on view through January 6, 2014, exclusively at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions coincides with the 300th anniversary of Serra’s birth and includes about 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and those of 61 lenders in the United States, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition examines Serra’s early life and career in Mallorca, Spain; his mission work in Mexico and California; the diversity and complexity of California Indian cultures; and the experiences of the missionaries and Indians who lived in the missions.

Junípero Serra also delves into the preservation and reconstruction of the missions as physical structures; the persistence of Indian culture from before the mission period to the present; the missions’ enduring place in California culture today; and a wide variety of perspectives—some of them irreconcilable—on Serra and the meaning of his life.


Cristóbal de Villalpando, La Mística Ciudad de Dios (The Mystical City of God), 1706. Museo regional de Gaudalupe/CONACULTA– INAH, Guadalupe, Zacatecas Nacional del Virreinato, Mexico.

“It’s a rich, complex, and multi-faceted story, and one that has not been told before in an exhibition of this magnitude,” said Steven Hackel, co-curator of the exhibition, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and Serra biographer (Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father, 2013). “Serra was 55 years old and had had a very full life by the time he came to California in 1769. In this show, we are working to move beyond the standard polemic that often surrounds Serra and the missions. We present a picture that is equally rich in its portrayal of not only Serra’s life but the meaning of the missions for a range of California Indians.” The general tendency is to think that Serra’s life work began with the Califor­nia missions, Hackel added, and that Indian culture disappeared with the onset of those missions. “The exhibition challenges both of these assumptions.”

Contemporary art, including a video work created expressly for the exhibition by James Luna (Luiseño), and first-person narratives by descendants of the missions “defy any presumptions that Native Americans ‘vanished’ or that they hold a monolithic view about the mission past,” said Catherine Gudis, co-curator of the exhibition and professor of California and public history at the University of California, Riverside. “Rather, the show represents a range of responses—including resistance and resilience—as the result of a period of painful disruption and devastating change.”

Among key items in the exhibition are a host of rare paintings and illustrations documenting the history of the Spanish island of Mallorca, Serra’s life, 18th-century Catholic liturgical art, and New Spain, as well as several sketches and watercolors that are among the first visual representations of California and California Indians by Europeans. “These images are not only beautiful,” says Hackel, “but they are among the most important ethnographic representations of California Indian life at the onset of the missions and of Indian life in the missions.”

Also on view are Serra’s baptismal record from Mallorca, his Bible and lecture notes from Mallorca, and the diary he composed as he traveled from Baja California to San Diego in 1769. Notable and unique items documenting Indian culture in California include a textile fragment that is thousands of years old, woven by California Indians from seaweed and fiber, as well as beads, tools, baskets, and written documents from the colonial period. “Like the Spaniards, these were people who had a significant history and culture well before the Europeans showed up, and it was a history and culture that would persevere, although not without huge changes, in and after the missions,” said Gudis.

jun-pero-serra-autographed-copy-3Junípero Serra provides a sweeping examination of where Serra came from, including the history and culture of Mallorca well before his time and during his early life; where Serra traveled, including his early adult years performing missionary work from central Mexico to Baja; and finally, his work to establish a system of missions along the California coastline from south to north.

At the same time, it provides the backdrop against which the missions emerged: early California was populated by numerous and diverse groups of Indians. Culture and customs varied from village to village; more than 100 languages were spoken; and in the parts of California colonized by Spain, the Indians numbered nearly 70,000.

Serra, under the auspices of the Catholic Church and the Spanish flag, believed his mission was to convert them to Christianity. However, his dream of encouraging Indians to relocate to the missions ultimately led many to an early grave, as diseases killed thousands of Indians who lived there.

“The mission period was a defining one in California’s history—and Serra is the most visible symbol of that period,” said Hackel. “But in taking this story all the way through—from before Indians and Europeans made contact, through the construction and collapse of the mission system, and then to the present day—it is, in fact, a story of conflicting, blending, and overlapping cultures, of imperial expansion and human drama and loss, and then, finally, of the perseverance and survival of not only European institutions in California, but the California Indians who were the focus of Serra’s missions.”


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