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.”


E X H I B I T I O N  F L O W

Serra in Mallorca
Junípero Serra was born Miquel Joseph Serra on November 24, 1713, in the Spanish village of Petra, which is located on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea. The son of a farmer, he spent his early childhood working the family’s land and attending a Franciscan school; Catholicism loomed large in both his home and in the greater community. At an early age, he began studying for the priesthood, and when he joined the Franciscan Order, he took the name Junípero, in honor of one of the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Franciscan hierarchy in Mallorca and soon held an important position as a professor of theology at the Lullian University in the Mallorcan capital of Palma.

Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions includes a number of documents and objects from Mallorca from that time, including a silver chalice from the Franciscan convent in Palma; a woodcut depicting juniper used by Serra and perhaps carved by him; and spectacular period maps, drawings, and paintings.

“We want to convey the sense that Mallorca was a place with a deep history, one shaped by the island’s position at the crossroads of North Africa and the Western Mediterranean,” said Steven Hackel, co-curator of the exhibition and associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. The show displays two ceramic bowls from Mallorca—one from the 14th century decorated with the Star of David, and the other from one century before, showing Arabic writing—depicting the island’s strong Jewish and Arabic roots. “It’s important to note,” Hackel said, “that Serra came from a place where very different cultures had been in contact and even conflict for hundreds of years.”

Serra in Mexico
As was typical for a Franciscan of his day, Serra traveled the Mallorcan countryside on foot, preaching the gospel. Then, in 1749, he and several Franciscan colleagues decided to go to Mexico as missionaries. He arrived in the capital of Mexico on Jan. 1, 1750. For eight years, he worked in the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico, overseeing five pre-existing missions and supervising the building of permanent mission structures (designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003). The exhibition includes Serra correspondence from this period as well as documents showing his work as a field agent in Mexico for the Spanish Inquisition, investigating individuals accused of witchcraft.

Serra in Alta California
In 1769, Spain, eager to lay full claim to the area that would become California, called on Serra to help establish and run missions in San Diego, Monterey, and points in between. Spanish officials were worried that Russians or other Europeans might otherwise attempt to settle there. Serra, in the company of other Franciscans and dozens of soldiers, worked his way north and established Mission San Diego in the summer of 1769. One year later, the Franciscans established a mission and presidio in Monterey, and it was there in the summer of 1770 that Serra and Gaspar de Portolá, the interim governor of California, took possession of Alta California for Spain.

Indian labor was essential to building and sustaining the missions, as drawings and letters in “Junípero Serra” depict. There is also evidence of a blending of cultures. “For instance, Indians brought musical skills and traditions to the missions, elements of which made their way into Catholic liturgical music,” says Catherine Gudis, co-curator of the exhibition and associate professor of history and director of the public history program at the University of California, Riverside. Drums and other instruments as well as elaborate handmade choir books will be on display, along with several highly prized California Indian baskets made for European audiences or visiting dignitaries. The Chumash women who made them used traditional plant materials and motifs but also wove heraldic designs identical to those on Spanish colonial coins in circulation during the mission period. Also on display are woodworking and carved sculptural ornaments made by Indian artisans, some of whom likely apprenticed with Mexican craftsmen.

Serra’s work was as dramatic as it was passionate. In support of his efforts to convert Indians to Catholicism, he ordered monumental oil paintings for the mission walls, showing the mission’s patron saints, for example. One large (six by seven feet) painting depicts the “glory of heaven” in order to make his understanding of the afterlife more tangible to a people unfamiliar with it, says Hackel. That picture, by Serra’s favorite Mexican painter, José de Páez (1720–ca. 1801), is on view, as well as other significant works of liturgical art from Serra’s time.

Junípero Serra also includes displays based on the Early California Population Project, a database of sacramental records created by the Franciscans, which The Huntington compiled and Hackel oversaw. The database contains the baptism, marriage, and burial records of many of the more than 80,000 Indians who lived in the California missions. Using the database, Hackel and Gudis created two displays: one shows how Indians moved from their villages to the missions, and how their villages eventually disappeared; the other presents the original native names and the Spanish given names of the tens of thousands of California Indians who lived and died in the missions, or came to the missions for baptism. The database itself is an online research tool for tracking Indian genealogy, connecting California Indians today to their ancestors.

The Missions after Serra
By the time Serra died in Mission San Carlos (Carmel) in 1784, he had shepherded the building of nine missions. Another 12 would be built before the missions were secularized and the mission effort abandoned in the 1830s under Mexico. At the same time the missions were dismantled, the status of the Indians was becoming increasingly imperiled, says Gudis. “With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the advent of the Gold Rush, and the incorporation of California into the Union in 1850, the Indian population was decimated and dispossessed, forced onto the most unproductive land and into the most exploitative wage labor,” she says. “With the rapid desire of Americans to claim the land, Indians were essentially stripped of any rights they had retained under Spanish and then Mexican rule.”

“Yet,” Gudis says, “the stripping of their civil rights in the American era was not what we saw depicted by artists in later decades.” Landscape painters Jules Tavernier (1844–1889) and Edward Deakin (1838–1923) and photographer Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) were among those who visited the mission ruins and depicted them, for the most part, devoid of the people who had provided a hand in their construction. Decades later, through the efforts of local boosters and promoters, the missions would become tourist attractions and a defining architectural motif for California, influencing the look of commercial, religious, and residential structures. “From red tile roofs to the mission plays and the story of Ramona, missions took on a different and highly romanticized meaning—creating a Spanish fantasy past for the state,” she added. Tourist souvenirs, family photographs—including Ektachrome color slides from the 1950s and 1960s—and other mementos are on view in the exhibition.

Junípero Serra also includes a gallery displaying cultural expressions of contemporary Native and non-Native artists that reinterpret the mission period and wrestle with the current legacies of Serra. From Linda Yamane, a Rumsien Ohlone artist from the Monterey area, comes an intricately woven ceremonial basket with feathers and shells, a type of basketry produced for the first time in more than 200 years and marking her revival of basket traditions that had essentially vanished. Gerald Clarke, of Cahuilla heritage, displays a different sort of meticulously assembled basket—this one made of aluminum from Budweiser and Coca Cola cans, while L. Frank, a Tongva member, offers her take on missions and mission revival through her comic strips. Luiseño artist James Luna rounds out the exhibition with a large video projection that assembles images of mission records, archival photographs from the turn of the 20th century featuring Indians at missions, and contemporary family portraits from the artist’s collection.

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