Los Angeles’ metro area is tied with London as the museum capital of the world, each with 300—albeit
the latter boasts of prestigious institutions like the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum, while
L.A. touts exhibits about the history of murder and what’s wrong with psychiatry. Yet we have some of
the world’s best specialty museums and I recently visited two that have a special relationship with
Southern California’s history and culture.
The Petersen Automotive Museum (open seven days at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Hollywood) was in decline a few years back, as visitors felt they had already seen the collection and didn’t return. New leadership closed it down for radical renovation that cost $125 million, starting with the façade that has symbolic silver streams of wind around a red body that represents a racing hot rod. Southern California grew up around car culture (there were once 150 automotive makers located here) and the bold redo that added a floor and imaginative, interactive, and
changing exhibits will both educate and entertain first-time and repeat visitors.
Start on the third level, which explores the history of vehicular innovation, starting with a replica of the
first practical car in 1886, the Benz Patent Motorwagen, which ran on gas. The sign on the Model T
noted that 15 million sold for $440 ($10,400 in today’s money) and it could reach a speed of 45 mph. An
enlightening display was on the history of radiators and the search for alternative cooling fluids, since
water boils at 212 degrees and cars could overheat, while freezing would crack the motor.
(Batmobile photo: 1989 Batmobile)
By the 1920s, Hollywood had become a favorite location for silent film makers because of good weather,
variety of scenery, and culture of artistic freedom. The role of vehicles in movies is currently represented
by the Batmobile from 1989’s “Batman” and 1992’s “Batman Returns,” as well as the bright yellow
Duesenberg II featured in “The Great Gatsby.”
As cars became less expensive, they displaced motorcycles, which had been made by 150 American
manufacturers, and the Great Depression killed off all the remaining but two, Indian and Harley-
Davidson. On the second floor there is an extensive collection of their products. Filling the needs of the
military revived demand and Harley built 70,000 for use in World War II. Harley’s mechanical
improvements, like the Knucklehead motor, coupled with its macho persona, made it the post-war cult
favorite among aficionados. H-D and Indian attracted a broader customer base by positioning
motorcycles as symbols of lifestyle freedom on the open road. On the other hand, smaller scooters
brought motorbikes to those of a more practical mind and limited budget.
(LeMans: Porsche 919 Hybrid came in second overall at the 2015 Le Mans race)
Car design, both cosmetic and functional, is explored by the example of the 1955 Mercury D528
Concept, which was created to test a new frame, air conditioning, and safety features. It was never
marketed, but appeared in the science fiction TV series “The Outer Limits” and the 1964 movie “The
Patsy” starring Jerry Lewis. You can also watch students of the College of Design use Apple computers and Wacom styluses create vehicles of the future or explore the astounding number of options that can go into a particular car.
Interactive touch screens, Xbox racing simulators, iPads, LED monitors, Panasonic projectors, and three-
dimensional displays enliven the education, with Pixar’s Cars Mechanical Institute especially appealing
(solar vehicle: The Mana La, built in Hawaii in 1987 by John Paul DeJoria and Paul Mithcell could reach
speeds of 85 mph.)
It will surprise most to see hybrids as early as 1900 being powered by both gas and either batteries or
steam. One alternative vehicle from 1987 was powered by solar and wind and could reach 85 mph.
Graphics show how each source of fuel compares with gasoline.
The ground floor currently shows aspects of car artistry, such as brightly-painted Chicano low-riders, as
well as top racecars and experimental vehicles. With over 300 unique vehicles in its permanent
collection, the Petersen is one of the world’s best automotive museums.
The Martial Arts History Museum http://martialartsmuseum.com 818/478-1722 (in Burbank, open to
the public Thu.-Sun., but schools often reserve tours during the week and it is a popular venue for
special events, including weddings, movie screenings, and seminars). This nonprofit museum started as
a traveling exhibit by director Michael Masuda in 1999 and was located in Santa Clarita 2007-10, moving
to the current building in 2011, with the exhibits designed by Hollywood artists from the Walt Disney
Co., Dreamworks, “The Simpsons,” and others.
“It’s the world’s first museum dedicated solely to martial arts history around the world, and how Asian
history and culture became part of American history and culture,” said Masuda.
The displays open with a look at the Chinese origins of kung fu, made popular in the U.S. when David
Carradine starred in the TV series “Kung Fu” 1972-75 as a monk wandering the Old West seeking his
half-brother. The combination of exotic self-defense skills and mental and spiritual training behind them
was widely appealing. Until 1960, kung fu had not been taught in public to non-Chinese and even today,
few Westerners have shown the patience and mental discipline required to master it. Out of the original
series came a movie and sequel series, about which I interviewed Carradine twice and found him to be
not only a serious practitioner, but one of the most fascinating people I ever met.
Another Chinese martial art, tai chi, was brought to the U.S. by those who immigrated to work in the
California gold fields in the 19 th century and today is especially popular with seniors because of its
flowing dance-like movements, practiced for general health.
(Films: Hollywood has from almost its inception included the martial arts on the big and small screens)
One room lays out how deeply the Asian martial arts have penetrated American culture, showing
the timeline of films and animation. The first silent motion picture featuring them was “The Outside
Woman” in 1921. The Asian self-defense systems appeared in comic books, on radio, TV, and in films,
whether about the detective Charlie Chan or superheroes like the Green Hornet. In 1973, the year after
“Kung Fu” debuted, Bruce Lee leaped to global superstardom in the box office smash hit “Enter the
Dragon” (in this article, I explain how Lee became so successful, despite his death at 32
https://www.investors.com/news/management/leaders-and- success/bruce-lee- popularized-martial-
Other major movies with the martial moves included 1980’s “Shogun,” 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” 1995’s
“Xena—Warrior Princess,” the three “Matrix” science fiction flicks 1999-2003, 2003’s “The Last
Samarai,” the two “Kill Bill” pictures with Carradine, Lucy Liu, and Uma Thurman in 2003-04, 2008’s
“Kung Fu Panda.” In 2000, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” went on to win the Oscar for best foreign
The MAHM also shows how the martial arts have taken a leading role in animation, starting with “The
Doorman” in 1917. Artist Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of anime films and TV and manga comics, was
inspired by, of all things, 1937’s “Snow White.” In 2001, Japan’s “Spirited Away” was released and won
the Academy Award for best animated feature.
(HILua1: The Hawaiian martial art Lua was kept secret from outsiders until recently)
Exhibits also focus on martial arts that are not familiar to most Americans, such as Hawaii’s lua (which
deploys weapons with edges embedded with shark teeth), Thailand’s muay thai, and Filipino fighting
tools and techniques.
The most popular martial art in the West today is the Korean tae kwon do, introduced in 1956. My son,
Christian, who was with me, learned a Korean style that integrated several others called kuk sool won.
Tom Laughlin, who starred in the “Billy Jack” movies he produced in the 1970s, popularized the Korean
fighting system of hapkido.
Tournaments pitting practitioners of different or combined martial arts began in the 1950s, dominated
initially by masters of Japanese and Korean judo, which was made an Olympic sport in 1964.
(samarai: Sumarai warrior armor and weapons)
Displays on the deadly arts of the Japanese samurai warriors and the secret ninja assassins are
particularly vivid. We were surprised to learn that Elvis Presley became a black belt in Japanese karate
and kempo karate, which has similarities to kung fu.
The museum’s big annual event is the Dragonfest Expo August 25, 2018, an opportunity to meet some of
the stars and teachers and learn about the cultures behind each tradition.
The Martial Arts History Museum may qualify as the most overlooked, high quality exhibition in
Southern California and it will appeal to anyone of any age with an interest in not only martial arts, but
American popular culture and Asian history. If you want to get a glimpse inside beyond what is on the
site, the museum sells a DVD “tour.”
Museums remain a unique way to bring subjects alive for those who know little, but are curious, and to
teach those who think they know everything.