L.A., London Museums Vie in Monster Restitution Battle

British media are reporting that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is asking for restitution of a Frankenstein's monster dummy now held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Universal Studios donated the dummy to the Los Angeles County Museum (precursor of NHMLA and LACMA) in 1935. It had apparently been used in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein and was dressed in a costume worn by Boris Karloff. In 1949 the County Museum lent it to the Academy of Motion Pictures. The dummy was reported lost in 1967. But in 1988 it resurfaced at auction and was bought by London's Museum of the Moving Image. That institution closed in 1999, and the dummy was donated to the V&A in 2014. 

A NHMLA spokesperson told The Telegraph that it "was not aware of and did not consent to the sale of these objects."

The Guardian likened the dispute to the Elgin marbles and Benin bronzes while questioning the relevance of a fake monster to a natural history museum. Maybe some background is in order: Originally dedicated to art, science, and natural history, the early L.A. County Museum assembled a large collection of movie memorabilia. Collections manager Beth Werling calls it "the mother lode of Hollywood artifacts." Highlights are regularly on view in the galleries devoted to the history of Los Angeles. NHMLA owns Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" costume, Walt Disney's animation stand, King Kong's hand (used for close-ups), and props from Universal horror films The MummyPhantom of the Opera, and the original Frankenstein (the monster's ball and chain). The missing dummy was no outlier.

In an echo of the more momentous restitution cases, the V&A is pleading inability to return the monster under the National Heritage Act. Instead it offers vague talk of a sharing arrangement: "The V&A has been in contact with representatives from the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles about the object’s history and provenance, and proposed a number of partnership opportunities. We welcome the opportunity for further discussion."

Frankenstein dummy and costume, about 1935. Victoria & Albert Museum, London (claimed by Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)


Anonymous said…
What a coincidence. I was just reading the following yesterday:


The interest the Natural History Museum has in promoting itself via the entertainment industry, and apparently also possibly with the upcoming neighboring Lucas Museum, sort of ties in with it wrangling with the V&A in London.

The Brits are always raising a stink about artworks being sold and shipped to other countries. But until now that at least has been for legitimate European treasures too. Now they're fighting about stuff never owned by them and originally from the US/Hollywood? Turn around is fair play.

Besides, I thought the V&A museum was mainly into the pursuit of old decorative arts? But they probably see $$$ signs in old movie memorabilia and want to exploit that. SOBs.

Then again, America/California lobbed Meghan Markle on them so this must be their form of payback. lol.
Anonymous said…
The comment about Meghan Markle is not relevant and is tasteless.
Anonymous said…
Is there anything is British museums that wasn’t stolen?!
Anonymous said…
How about Amber Heard? But unlike Meghan, Amber hasn't made quite the waves in the UK the way that Meghan has done. Although didn't Amber have a trial in the UK a few years ago?

How's the narcissism, ladies?
Anonymous said…
I'm confused. Didn't NHMLA think it was strange that the V&A bought a Frankenstein's monster dummy at auction that looked suspiciously like the one they lost? Why did it take NHMLA over 3 decades to discover this? The V&A wasn't exactly hiding it.
^^ Good question. My guess is that NHMLA was not actively buying movie memorabilia at auction. Ergo, there was no one on staff skimming auction catalogs for things they didn't have the budget to buy. Comprehensive collection websites are still a work in progress. So it's credible that NHMLA was unaware of this until now.
mughound said…
I wonder if the Academy next door tipped LACMA off to its claim. They must be actively looking over their books for lost movie artifacts and maybe asked LACMA if they could buy it.
Anonymous said…
Why would LACMA be involved? It belongs to the NHMLA.