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By Larry Edsall
Back to ClassicCars.com Community

Planning, not panic, is the focus at the Petersen Automotive Museum
By Larry Edsall

Petersen Automotive Museum "Calm down and......"

Like you, I've seen that phrase followed by all sorts of suggestions in the last few months. In the case of the classic car community, I'd suggest the following twist: "Calm down in regard to the Petersen."

The Petersen, of course, is the Petersen Automotive Museum, that carcentric shirne on Wilshire Boulevard on Los Angeles' famed Museum Row.

The calm is suggested -- and needed -- in the aftermath of the calamity created by a series of articles in LA's local daily newspaper, where headlines were filled with such inflammatory language as: "Petersen Automotive Museum's fire sale could torch the place."

The newspaper reported that, in what it deemed a violation of "most museums' standards," the Petersen was in the process of selling a third of its car collection and shifting its emphasis to motorcycles and French cars.

Petersen Automotive Museum What! Sure sounds like its time for the car community to panic, right?

Wrong.

As I've been reporting for the past year -- here and in The New York Times -- the museum is going through a carefully planned update, basically the first in its nearly 20-year history.

"We're going to transform the museum into a modern museum, inside and out,. We have elaborate plans and architectural ideas for the exterior and some really fun and exciting ideas for the interior, for new galleries, for new exhibits, for expanding the floor space," I was told this week by Terry Karges, who has been the museum's executive director for not quite a year.

Karges reminded me that the building that houses the museum originally was a department store, not a purpose-built museum, and while that provided the Petersen with a handy parking structure for its cars and its visitors, it also restricted the museum's displays.

For nearly a year, Karges, other key staffers and the museum's board of directors have been making plans, and have consulted with people whose experience includes working for the Disney and Universal Studios theme parks. In addition to a new and dramatic exterior facade, there will be new displays that share not just the story of the automobile in Los Angeles, but the emotion and passion for cars in LA and elsewhere.

Petersen Automotive Museum "We don't have any of that right now," Karges said. "We're not a 21st Century museum."

But, he added, "We're going to transform the museum into a modern museum, inside and out. We have elaborate plans and architectural ideas for the exterior and some really fun and exciting ideas for the interior, for new galleries, for new exhibits, for expanding the floor space."

Among the plans, Karges said, is a plan to share the details in mid-August during the classic car week at Pebble Beach.

To prepare for the modernization of the museum, the Petersen has sold a couple of its cars and will have 64 more crossing the block in early August at Auction America's sale in Burbank.

"In the past 20 years, the museum has been taking cars as donations and buying some cars but not necessarily selling cars," Karges explained. "We ended up with more than 410 cars."

What result, he said, was an accumulation, not a "collection."

So, after months of considering what cars it wants or needs or can maintain, the museum is selling vehicles that are, for example, duplicates, or are too expensive to restore or to maintain. One example, the museum sold its Bugatti Veyron, in part because it costs $30,000 a year just to keep it running. Should it ever want to put a Veyron on display, its chairman has two he's willing to loan.

"A lot of the cars we're selling were never intended to be museum exhibit pieces," Karges explained.

Proceeds from the sale of the excess inventory will be used to restore vehicles in the collection for display or to buy cars the museum wants to show, Karges said. Among the cars it wants to buy are those built in Southern California (look for news soon on that front).

Karges also said the museum also wants to establish a motorsports gallery, a gallery to share the stories of the men and women who built the auto industry, and to do education programs for adults in addition to its already extensive educational program for school-age children.

Proceeds from the auction will not be used for the new exterior facade, Karges added. That will be funded by a new capital improvement program (details to come at Pebble Beach).

One big reason for the changes, Karges said, is to make the museum more than a one-time attraction for its visitors.

"Seventy percent of our attendance is first-timers," he said. "But we're not getting them back again. We want our visitors to come back."

And, he added, "we've done a great job of talking to the car enthusiasts, but we haven't done a great job of talking to the non-enthusiast."

The changes, those being made inside and out, are designed to make the Petersen a more attractive destination for the car enthusiast and to spark the automotive enthusiasm of those who just wander in while visiting Museum Row.

"What we end up doing will be a world-class showcase for the automobile," Karges promised.

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