Father Francesc Caimari Rotger

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. (Courtesy of the Huntington Library / December 23, 2013)

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.

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.

"It's hard for people to wrap their minds around that," said Steven Hackel, who is author of the new biography, "Junípero Serra: California's Founding Father," and like fellow co-curator Gudis, is an associate professor of history at UC Riverside.

"I'm a California native," Hackel said, "and we were taught from fourth grade on that these were sort of noble gentle padres in brown robes who helped tired travelers and taught Indians how to farm, that kind of stuff. But there was much more to Serra's life than that, as you see in the show.

"Part of his extensive powers was to be an investigator for the Inquisition. Part of his job was to enforce a certain kind of dogmatic understanding of Catholicism and to protect communities from what were seen as spiritual threats. It is discordant," Hackel said, "but it's entirely consistent with other leading Franciscans of the 18th century. The reason we don't know much about it, is because for a very long time it's been an 'inconvenient truth,' if you want to use a cliché."

How to balance the exhibition's focus on the historical Serra — a figure of formidable intellectual power and determination, single-minded in his mission of conversion and extending the reach of the Catholic Church — and on the near eradication of Indian cultures and languages, "was the central challenge" of the exhibition, said Hackel.

Serra is a symbol for all that happened under Spanish colonization, he said, "and to some extent, many of the things that happened during the Mexican and American periods. He's one who was most passionate about teaching Indians methods of agriculture new to native peoples, and arguing that there was one universal religion in Catholicism.

"What we wanted was to have a show that was not seen as just a glorification of a Spanish Franciscan colonizer," Hackel said. "We wanted to turn it around a little bit and make an attempt to understand how California Indians experienced his vision and life in the missions. We felt almost a kind of moral or ethical responsibility to do that.

Tens of thousands of Indians came to the California missions, where they contracted "terrible diseases and where they were living in an environment that was hostile to their culture much of the time," he said.

Yet while the exhibition is not a brief for Serra's "canonization," neither is it "an indictment of Serra for war crimes," Hackel said. "We try and maintain a balance." The "most interpretive" segment of the exhibition is in the center room, "where we talk about the survival within the missions of California Indian culture through language, song, dance and in particular carpentry [and] handicrafts." To see traditional native basketry designed with "Spanish emblems, icons of royal power," illustrates how some Indian peoples lived in two worlds," he said, "balancing traditional native life with a new way of living that was introduced or imposed by the Spaniards."

It's a story of survival as well, Hackel pointed out. While native cultures were challenged, "enough survived so that [today] Indians are recovering their lost heritages and reconstituting their communities that became frayed in the 18th century. It was a terrible, terrible time in many ways, but people survived and elements of their culture survived."

One exhibit, a massive wood and metal door from the San Gabriel Mission, circa 1805, illustrates how ceremony and spectacle could work as a tool of both intimidation and education, Gudis said. What's also clear in the record, she noted, "is the way in which native people became craftsmen in the Spanish colonial tradition, so that they were the people doing the carpentry and the sculpting and the painting for the missions."

Other displays intended to bring the voices of indigenous people "back into the room," Gudis said, were shaped by a database of mission Indians culled from Franciscan sacramental records. On one wall, the baptism, marriage and burial dates of many of these tens of thousands of California Indians flash by; elsewhere, a video animation shows a vast number of Indian villages disappearing as their populations were absorbed into the missions. (The source database, termed the Early California Population Project, was compiled by the Huntington and overseen by Hackel.)

The last two rooms of the exhibition move into the present, examining the influence of the missions on the state's architecture and their evolution into tourist attractions, the mythologizing and romanticizing of the mission period that began in the 1920s — "sidestepping Catholicism" and "larger ethnic issues in favor of a European past," Gudis said — as well as the "racialized views of Indians as passive, thankful and childlike" and the rise of activism combating those views.

"We speak with people on film and [see] family photos of people who are taking back their own perspective on the past and resuscitating forms of cultural continuance that had been threatened through the mission period as languages became, if not extinct, near extinct, through disuse and through the high mortality rate," Gudis said.

"These are all ways in which we're trying to populate the galleries with those people who have been so flattened in the historical perspective that they became mythologized figures erased, eviscerated really, by popular culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and even up until today," she said.

"It's really essential to think of the exhibition as its title suggests," Gudis emphasized. "It is [about] both Serra and the legacies of the California missions. Junípero Serra is significant "because he became for California a symbolic founding father, but he's also significant because he brought a system that had such a huge impact on the people who were already here."

What: “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions”

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino.

Holiday hours: Noon to 4:30 p.m. this Monday (Dec. 23); closed Tuesday and Wednesday (Dec. 24 and 25); 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 26) through Dec. 31. Closed Jan. 1.

Admission: Adults $20 to $23; youth $8; under age 5, free. Discounts for seniors and students.

More info: (626) 405-2100, huntington.org

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.