Steven Hackel thought it was a prank at first when the call came, early in the morning: “What do you mean the church is on fire?” He raced from his Pasadena home to the 249-year-old Mission San Gabriel, which was ensconced in flames devouring the historic structure.

Hackel was not a member of the still active parish; but as a UC Riverside history professor specializing in California’s missions, he was intimately familiar with the small, on-site Mission San Gabriel Museum, which he’d been helping to steer, in various unpaid capacities, for almost a decade.

As 80 firefighters from seven cities battled the four-alarm fire, Hackel and about half a dozen others set out to rescue the museum’s collection, which the fire hadn’t yet reached. They carried out about 100 objects — Native baskets, 17th and 18th century paintings, rare books and photographs — from the museum building, which was intact but for smoke and water damage. They stored the items at the convent next door before relocating them to proper art storage weeks later….

The Mission San Gabriel Museum — a new version of which opens to the public on July 1 along with the mission itself and its renovated church — may be small and little-known. But it’s critically important, Hackel says. L.A.’s Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which was inaugurated in 1907, may be slightly older; the Autry Museum of the American West may be larger, with collections totaling more than 600,000 objects and cultural materials. But the Mission San Gabriel Museum offers curated historical objects within a relevant setting, providing unique context. The mission was established in 1771, the fourth of California’s 21 Spanish missions, and the on-site museum has been in continuous operation since 1908. (Originally located in Whittier Narrows, the Mission San Gabriel was moved to its current location in 1774.)

Its inaugural exhibition — “Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, 1771-1900: Natives, Missionaries, and the Birth of Catholicism in Los Angeles” — is an attempt to publicly recognize “a 250-year-long erasure of the mission’s Native history and to displace a Eurocentric understanding of the legacies of Spanish colonization and Catholic missionization,” the museum said in its opening announcement….

From the L.A. Times