By Sara V. Torres
Three hundred years ago in the Mediterranean isle of Majorca, the man who would become known as the father of the California missions was born. “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library commemorates the tricentennial of his birth with a visually stunning exhibition that weaves together the intertwined stories of Serra’s career as a missionary to Spanish America and the complex Indian responses to mission life through rich artifacts of material culture drawn from both Spain and early California. It is open through January 6.
On display are important documentary records of Serra’s own life and the founding of early California missions, along with maps, paintings, reliquaries, and early Indian artifacts, comprising nearly 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and sixty lending institutions in the US, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition gives voice to the wide range of Native American experiences in California missions and captures, through documents, artifacts, and oral histories, their spirit of cultural resilience in the face of pandemic illness and the incursion of new cultures. Audiovisual features help convey the rich cultural diversity of the nearly 350,000 Native Americans who lived in California at time of Serra’s arrival, and the survival of indigenous traditions through centuries of upheaval.
Conveying the full arc of the missions’ history, the exhibition moves forward in time to explore the secularization of the missions and the subsequent displacement and social marginalization of Indians during the annexation of Alta California into the US. Displays focusing on romanticized “myths of the missions,” including The Mission Play and the popular Ramona stories, stand in stark counterpoint to the documentary records and photographs of real-life missions, challenging visitors to think critically about the place of missions within state history and legend.
Co-curator Steven Hackel’s new biography, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (352pp, $27), complements the exhibition by painting a full and nuanced portrait of the famous Franciscan missionary in great scholarly detail, with a particular emphasis on the cultural, intellectual, and theological contexts of Serra’s upbringing and early career in Mallorca and how these experiences informed his mission work in Baja and Alta California. Together, the exhibition and biography tell a fascinating history of a man whose memory is lined with an aura of saintliness and whose legacy is imbued with controversy.