Seeking Stronger Footing for Pacific Asia Museum

Passersby along Los Robles Avenue between Union Street and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena may not notice anything too different about the façade of the USC Pacific Asia Museum located on that busy city block. From the outside, the historical mansion built in the style of a Chinese palace stands out much as it has for the past 92 years since its construction. But stroll through its arched entryway guarded by stone dragons and it quickly becomes clear that the facility is an active construction site.Boxed-up sculptures littering the central courtyard and a pile of wooden boards leaning against the dusty front desk are the first visible signs of a large-scale seismic retrofitting project currently taking place at Southern California’s only museum exclusively devoted to pan-Asian arts.
The decision to strengthen the concrete building’s foundation came after USC took control of the museum in late 2013 and conducted a yearlong study involving a team of university engineers. Although the structure complied with California building codes, Pacific Asia Museum Director Christina Yu Yu believed that enhancing its ability to withstand an earthquake was a necessary long-term strategy. The fact that USC was willing to cover the seven-figure cost of the renovation smoothed the process as well.
“Even if it’s passed minimum standard codes, we feel that in order to save this historic building, it would be better to do it,” Yu Yu said. “It also shows USC’s commitment to the museum’s success.”
MATT Construction, a company based in Santa Fe Springs, began work last month and the museum will remain closed until next spring. The main ingredient in the seismic retrofitting endeavor is a substance called shotcrete, a variation of concrete that will be applied via high-velocity hose to the basement, first and second floors, and roof of the building. Workers will then reinforce the shotcrete with steel fibers.
“The study showed that our paint has a lot of lead concentration,” Yu Yu said. “So part of it is also to remove that layer of lead-concentrated paint.”
But unhealthy paint isn’t all that needs to be removed from the premises. The museum must transport its more than 17,000 works of art to an offsite storage location during the construction, a task that has opened up the opportunity for a permanent collection survey. The museum’s curatorial team, which includes young members of the Getty Foundation’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program, has begun to sift through every piece of art scheduled for transport, cataloguing pertinent information using specialized software called Mimsy.
“It’s a very heavy responsibility,” said Yeonsoo Chee, an assistant curator at the Pacific Asia Museum for the past eight years. “My shoulders are very heavy right now. … Everything has to be — in a literal sense — perfect. We cannot make a mistake in terms of entering the data. There can be no damage to the objects and there can be no missing objects.”
Chee added that “it’s challenging for a small staff to undertake this really big project, but it’s really exciting because we get to be involved in upgrading the museum infrastructure.”
The curatorial team has also received assistance from a local company that specializes in handling and shipping fine art. Once the survey is complete, Yu Yu plans to solicit the opinions of experts in different fields regarding the newly mined collection data.
“Based on the knowledge we can gain from the survey, we can know how to brainstorm galleries, what pieces that we try to show to the public and also how we can integrate our own collection into future acquisitions,” she said.
Constructed in 1924 as the residence of pioneering collector and entrepreneur Grace Nicholson, the building is now a California State Historical Landmark and graces the National Registry of Historical Places. The ongoing seismic retrofitting project represents the first stage of a master plan that includes a storage upgrade, auditorium enhancement and possible addition of a rooftop garden.
“The feel is very different from museums built in the last 10, 20, 30 years,” Yu Yu said. “We do not have an open, wide, box space — what we now think of a traditional museum. We have smaller, intimate rooms. So we have been thinking how to actually use that to our advantage to present different kinds of exhibitions.”
“We always say that the building itself is the most iconic piece in our own collection. So we definitely feel we have the responsibility to preserve this building and present it to the audience.”

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