Famed collector takes the wheel at L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum


Visiting the cavernous halls of Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum over the years, one thing was always apparent. Packed as it was with cars, people typically were in scarce supply. I once interviewed "House" star Hugh Laurie there partly because it was sure to be a quiet place for an molested conversation. Laurie, a gearhead in addition to being an actor and jazz pianist, loved the place. The Petersen’s enduring problem was not enough other people did.

Peter Mullin wants to change that. As the museum’s new board chair, he is poised to launch a $35 to $45 million overhaul that ranges from exterior and interior makeovers to a wholesale reappraisal of the museum’s exhibits and mission. The timeline is tight: Mullin wants to have the new Petersen ready by 2014, two decades after it was opened by the late hot rod publishing magnate Bob Petersen.

“We’re aiming to be a world-class museum period, not a southern California car culture museum,” says Mullin, 72. “I understand why it started out one way. It’s not a criticism, that was just the focus of Petersen publications. But we can be so much more.”

Specifically, the new Petersen will look to appeal beyond a typical auto museum’s core audience, which is largely white and male, according to the American Alliance of Museums. Mullin says the quest for a younger and more ethnically diverse crowd will employ a range of tactics, including interactive exhibits, an engaging website and an emphasis on green technology.

“We want to be in line with what the views of younger visitors might be, from energy efficiency to creating cars with environmental sensitivity in mind,” he says, adding that he plans to create exhibits with the participation of institutions ranging from Pasadena’s Art Center of Design (which has spawned dozens of the world’s top automotive designers, including Ford’s Freeman Thomas and BMW’s Chris Bangle) to the dozens of design studios operated by automakers around Southern California (BMW’s outfit just penned a sleek bobsled for the U.S. Olympic team).

Mullin also hopes that the museum’s location midway down Wilshire Boulevard will soon become more of an asset than a liability, far as it is from Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. With a new motion picture museum led by Disney chief Robert Iger set to open nearby soon, Mullin hopes the area eventually will offer visitors a museum trifecta that also includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But Mullin’s decision to hop back on board didn’t come easy. The longtime automotive aficionado, who sold his executive compensation business MullinTBG to Prudential in 2008, was briefly chairman of the museum’s board a decade ago before opening his own French car-Art Deco museum in Oxnard, Calif. Petersen remained a supporter of the L.A. museum, but felt that “ultimately what I envisioned and what the Petersen envisioned were on different paths.”

Now that Mullin’s at the wheel, longtime museum board co-chair Bruce Meyer, who along with co-chair David Sydorick convinced their friend to take the post, remains confident a once-sleepy museum in a comparatively un-trendy part of Los Angeles will enjoy a renaissance.

“Peter is a brilliant executive who brings a sense of order and a global outlook to the museum,” says Meyer. “The building itself will be redone at a world-class level, and its exhibits will focus on cars as art, which is something many museums across the country have realized.”

Indeed, no lesser museums than Paris’ Louvre and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have displayed Ralph Lauren’s collection of pristine vintage automobiles in recent years. But that was a matter of luring car lovers to an arts museum, as compared to the more difficult task of asking arts lovers to come to a car museum, says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, part of Washington, D.C.’s American Alliance of Museums.

“Transportation museums typically face challenges because they appeal to a passionate if small band of enthusiasts, and it’s as yet unclear what success these sorts of museums would have marketing themselves to people with an interest in design,” says Merritt.

She notes that while museum attendance nationally remains strong for both international icons such as New York’s Metropolitan as well as very small local museums with deep ties to their communities, a regional museum with an automotive focus may struggle to increase attendance.

“Cars seem to mean less to the latest generations, millennials by and large don’t see cars as desired purchases,” she says, noting the growing number of car-share options in major cities. “The car is now an object of less iconic significance than it was in the ‘50s, when it meant nothing less than freedom.”

But that right there could be the Petersen’s new niche. With the automobile shifting for many from object of desire to eco-conscious mode of efficient transportation, a museum could find success if it were dedicated to celebrating a fast-fading age when sheet metal and four tires inspired dreams.

“Southern California is arguably the car capital of the world, and we’re ready to take the Petersen up to a level that takes advantage of that fact,” says Mullin. “Besides, our art is the kind you can drive, enjoy and share. Not every art can say that.”

Photos: Klaus Nahr, Anna Berthold via Flickr