History of the petersen

By Leslie Kendall, Chief Historian


American automotive museums have come and gone, but until publishing magnate and philanthropist Robert E. Petersen and his wife Margie opened the Petersen Automotive Museum, there was no central location in which to celebrate the entirety of automotive history, industry, culture, and artistry in Los Angeles, the most car-centric city the world has yet known. Even the Petersen Automotive Museum building represents aspects of automotive history as important as the vehicles displayed inside. Its architecture, user friendly parking facility, and central location make it a living example of automobile culture in Los Angeles.

No stranger to the museum world, Robert Petersen had operated the Petersen Motorama Cars of the Stars on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during the 1970s.  Approximately 15 years after the adventure ended, Mr. Petersen proposed the idea of an automotive museum to the Board of Directors of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (whose vehicle collection then encompassed 66 cars and motorcycles) and offered a lead gift of $15 million to begin the project.   An agreement was reached, the necessary financing secured, and a disused department store building was acquired in 1992 for the memorable sum of $11,111,111.11.  The original Petersen Automotive Museum opened in June 1994 as a branch of the Natural History Museum with a mission to explore and present the history of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture using Los Angeles as the prime example.  With its full-size dioramas and engaging thematic galleries, the Petersen Museum rapidly established a new standard of interpretive excellence.  In 2000 the museum separated from the Natural History Museum to become an independent entity owned by the Petersen Automotive Museum Foundation.  The new museum continued to thrive, winning awards and entertaining millions. 

About a decade and a half after the museum became independent, the Petersen Museum board of directors conceived an ambitious plan that would keep the museum at the forefront of innovation and updating its outward appearance to convey a sense of speed and dynamism that would hint at the kinds of exciting artifacts it housed. 

Like the automobiles it was created to celebrate, the Petersen Automotive Museum was keeping pace with the increasingly sophisticated expectations of the public and by December 2015 had been literally “turned upside down” to accommodate them.  Visitors now begin their journey on the third floor, which is dedicated to the history of the automobile (both in Southern California and around the world) and includes a close look at Hollywood’s love of cars. The second floor is now dedicated to the industry of the automobile and explores racing, customization, manufacturing, and alternative-fuel technologies.  Its interactive spaces provide for family learning and entertainment, and are adjacent to a new satellite campus of the ArtCenter College of Design.  Museumgoers end their visit on the first floor, which focuses on the artistry of the automobile in the large Peter and Merle Mullin Design salon devoted to the world’s most beautiful automobiles and an art gallery in which the works of well-known artists treat the automobile as both inspiration and medium. 


Enthusiasts with a desire to discover the vehicles from the collection that are not on display in the public areas, can now satisfy their curiosity by a visit to the well-known Vault, a climate-controlled subterranean area where collections vehicles are housed when they are not in a gallery or offsite for conservation, restoration, or public outreach.  Guided vault tours help visitors understand that Petersen Museum collections vehicles are more than mere static showpieces.  They are driven regularly and displayed at car shows and concours d’elegance events worldwide to educate as many people as possible about the role of the automobile in modern culture and draw them to the Petersen Automotive Museum where they can learn more. 

Whether they are on-site or off-, patrons quickly come to understand that our priority is to conserve rather than restore in order to retain as many original finishes and materials as possible in the vehicle (or other object) so that its usefulness as an educational tool might be fully manifest.  To complement the vehicles that are the focus of collecting activity, the Petersen Automotive Museum collects research materials housed in a facility consisting of a library and archive to enable us to properly investigate automobile-related topics. 

Thanks to the vision and generosity of founding benefactors Margie and Robert E. Petersen, the Petersen Automotive Museum was able to acquire over time a number of important vehicles that speak to the museum’s mission and help visitors understand and appreciate the history and complexity of Los Angeles’s rich automotive heritage.  In the years since the Petersen Museum opened, the generosity of the Petersen’s and other donors has allowed the museum to increase its collection to over 300 vehicles in addition to hundreds of complementary objects such as engines, parts, accessories, books, sales literature, photographs, videotapes and movie films. 

Yet as the automobile evolves, so will our collecting priorities.  Gifts and bequests of artifacts contribute immeasurably to our ability to educate and enlighten the public about how automobiles have shaped society.  They provide us the means to illustrate how far we have come since the beginning of the automobile age and help us appreciate the exciting changes that modern technologies bring to our motoring landscape. In doing so, our diverse collection will continue to give us the means to offer our audience the kind of panoramic look into our rich automotive heritage that can be found nowhere else.