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 Mummy, Phantom 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)|