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A balanced mission statement: Junípero Serra exhibit at the Huntington Library

The Huntington explores the profound legacy of one of California's most controversial founders.

December 23, 2013|By Lynne Heffley
  • Father Francesc Caimari Rotger, Retrat de Fra Juni´per Serra (Portrait of Fr. Juni´per Serra), 1790. Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in. Ayuntamiento de Palma, Mallorca.
Father Francesc Caimari Rotger, Retrat de Fra Juni´per… (Courtesy of the…)

If you missed it over the summer or fall, there's still time to explore the remarkable exhibition, "Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions," at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Nuanced and thought-provoking, this first-time compendium of hundreds of written materials, art and artifacts culled from the Huntington's collections, and from lenders in the United States, Mexico and Spain, continues through Jan. 6 in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

Generations of school children in California have been taught something of the role played by Spanish Franciscan priest Junípero Serra (1713–1784) in establishing the state's first missions. A major component of this fourth-grade curriculum is commonly a student-built model mission in the classroom (as I recall, we crafted ours in shoe boxes).

The Huntington exhibition delves considerably deeper. A wealth of material, organized over multiple rooms, encompasses the history of Serra's birthplace on the Spanish island of Majorca back to antiquity, the influences that formed the powerful Catholic priest's worldview long before he came to California at the age of 55 and the lasting, conflicted legacy of the mission period.

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Serra's writings, monumental oil paintings, early watercolors of California Indians, religious art, gold and silver sacramental vessels, Indian-crafted baskets, carvings and textiles, video and audio displays and the Franciscans' own meticulous and exhaustive record-keeping tell the story of Spanish colonization and of the mission of religious conversion that shaped California's history, and that so profoundly affected the lives and diverse cultures of the area's Indian populations. Among contemporary voices are a video installation created by Luiseño artist James Luna, first-person narratives by mission descendants and works by artist Linda Yamane of the Rumsien Ohlone and Gerald Clarke (of Cahuilla heritage).

"It's not just the history of Serra and the California Indians," said co-curator Catherine Gudis. "It's the history of all of us who live here. And it's a very complicated set of racial and ethnic histories intermixed with a colonial past that we've never really shaken."

Among the many exhibits on display that may cause jaws to drop: documents of the time related to Serra's function as an active agent of the Spanish Inquisition.

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