Profile: Petersen Museum Archivist Laura Fisher Leads Effort to Preserve Automotive History
It’s not the most glamorous job, but it’s a hugely important one.
LOS ANGELES—The late Robert E. Petersen, born in East Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 1926, began his career in public relations as a messenger at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he promptly transitioned into a publicist role. Long before he founded the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A., Petersen throughout his adolescence worked on cars with the guidance of his father, who encouraged him to learn everything he could about working on them by cleaning parts. During his time at MGM, Petersen joined the Army Air Corps in World War II as a photographer, during which time he developed an affinity for automotive photography.
Upon returning from his military service, MGM fired Petersen and others. Having a principal role in forming the consulting firm Hollywood Publicity Associates with former MGM staffers, Petersen became heavily involved in hot-rodding. Envisioning something larger-than-life, he left his post at Hollywood Publicity Associates and launched Petersen Publishing Co.
Not a single organization at the time existed to publicize automotive events, so Petersen, with the help of fellow ex-Hollywood Publicity Associates member Robert Lindsay, published the first issue of Hot Rod magazine in January 1948. Following the magazine's release and to promote hot rodding, Petersen sold copies of Hot Rod at the inaugural hot-rod show in Los Angeles and, in doing so, opened the floodgates to Southern California car culture. Petersen would build a publishing empire and launch some of the most well known automotive publications in the world, including Motor Trend. Once Petersen—who died in 2007—established himself as a publishing mogul and influential figure, one of his last pursuits as a philanthropist was opening the Petersen Automotive Museum in June 1994.
Below the Petersen Automotive Museum is the well-known Vault, and tucked away in another corner are thousands of boxes filled with film negatives, color slide film, magazines, and prints. There is also a large-scale collection of books, a walk-in freezer for film-reel preservation, automotive owner's manuals, car parts, and an abundance of historical artifacts that make up the Petersen Publishing Archive. The archive holds decades of material documenting the automobile's history across various publications, car shows, racing events, and advertisements.
Leading the efforts to preserve automotive history at the Petersen Publishing Archive is Petersen Automotive Museum archivist Laura Fisher, 30, who took us on a tour. After walking the aisles, rummaging through boxes, and a quick stroll in the Vault, we sat down to chat.
You earned your master's degree in history from Cal State Northridge, and you began your career as an archaeologist and historian. What was it like working in that field?
As a student at Cal Poly, I spent a lot of time in the Mojave Desert working on indigenous sites, and that's where I learned the most about archaeology. We'd be out in the desert for three days excavating sites for artifacts and would then return to the lab to analyze, catalog, and conserve them. Archaeology happens in the lab and the field; I developed skills that I still use today. I gained a roughing it attitude from my work in archaeology; don't let the heels and dress fool you.
When and how did you become the Petersen Automotive Museum archivist?
Before taking on the archivist role in 2017, I spent six months as an educator for the Petersen Museum, teaching kids and conducting tours of the museum. I did this part-time, and when I found out there was an open seat for a full-time archivist, I applied. At the time, it was either between this fun car museum or a dull office job at an accounting firm. After talking with my dad on the phone, I accepted the offer from the Petersen. In a way, I did it for my dad, who worked so hard his whole life and didn't get to do everything he wanted.
Tell us more about your time as an educator at the Petersen.
I love working with kids and teaching them about museums. When I was an educator for the Petersen Museum, I always used my enthusiasm for museums to explain to the kids why car museums matter. As an ecstatic tour guide, people made fun of me sometimes, but I would get all the kids excited about their visit. Our incredible education department works with several Title I schools, where we pay for the students' transportation and admission to the Petersen. Some of these kids, it's their first time visiting a museum, and that's a huge responsibility to me.
Before joining the Petersen Automotive Museum, were you interested in cars beyond a means of transportation?
Being a historian, you cannot tell the story of Southern California without talking about cars. I am interested in knowing how people relate to their vehicles, and in the narrative of American history, how involved they were with them. It's fascinating to think about how things may have been different had the invention of the technology to build cars had progressed at a later time. Working at the Petersen Automotive Museum, I have become more interested in the stories behind the cars.
In 2018 the Petersen Automotive Museum teamed up with Motor Trend Group for a project to digitize 1-million images from the Petersen Publishing Archive. Funded by the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), you were one of the project leaders. Where does this project stand now?
We received a $1-million grant from SEMA to digitize 1-million photographs. Several of the transparencies and negatives in the archive are from the early SEMA shows, and SEMA wanted access to them. Staff management, shipping the images, vetting vendors, managing a million-dollar budget, preserving the items, and maintaining an efficient workflow; that was my life for about 20 months or so. Our IT department developed an internal digital-asset management system to catalog and search for images, which can be improved, and we are working on that. There are approximately 1,070,000 images digitized.
Is the Petersen Automotive Museum's digital archive accessible to the public?
Yes, and they can access it by visiting archive.petersen.org.
Why is the digital preservation of automotive photography important?
The automotive photography collection in the Peter Publishing Archive documents decades of automotive history; digital preservation is a form of safeguarding. Cars are another useful tool to tell history's stories and the historical progress of transportation. For example: How do cars fit into the greater narrative of early Los Angeles, and how did this city develop around them? If all of history were to be wiped out and all that was left were these photographs of cars, how could we use them to reconstruct history? Moreover, having these photographs digitally available is efficient for research.
One of my favorite things is when someone visits the digital archive and emails me saying, "My dad restored that car, the little kid in the picture is me." Connecting people to history through automotive photography is something special, and the stories behind [the photos] always fascinate me.
You're not just an archivist; you are a special-collections caretaker, librarian, conservator, and historian. You describe your job as "taking care of everything that is not a car." What do you mean?
When archivists are not organizing a national collection, maintaining a library, or performing administrative tasks, they are contextualizing material for curators and the public as well. I never dreamt I would be able to do all the things I love about museums in one place; exhibits, conservation, helping write and research topics, and managing a unique library of books. At the Petersen Museum, I have the freedom to do it all and feel very lucky in that regard.
Other aspects of the work I do for the Petersen Museum include weekly gallery checks to make sure all the artifacts we maintain are clean, setting up exhibit display cases, installations, and organizing the collections downstairs. I also respond to questions by researchers, process photo requests from restoration artists restoring cars, and digitize items for exhibits. I don't believe in the phrase, "that's not my job."
As a museum archivist, what is one of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Resources. You can dream up high-in-the-sky ideas, but if you don't receive the grants to fund them efficiently within a timeline, they're just dreams. So, you have to do the best that you can at the moment with the resources you have; it's not always going to be perfect. We're building an archive from the ground up with limited resources, and making small compromises helps; around here, we call that "MacGyvering it."
Do you have any fun upcoming projects, and what are some of your current projects?
I've been cataloging the entire library of books, and I am currently in the process of moving it to the Library of Congress Classification standards, which could be another full-time job in itself. Our priority right now, though, is processing film and vetting vendors to have some of the images digitized with grants we received from The Ahmanson Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Another project I would like to launch within the next couple of years is the digitization of documents such as bills of sale, memos, magazine mock-ups, service receipts, etc.
What do you hope to accomplish as an archivist working in the automotive history space?
A car museum is an exciting place to visit, but I want to show people that automotive history is more than just the cars they see on the platforms. History is recorded in different ways through a variety of sources, and that's what an archive does. There are intriguing stories behind the cars and the people who treated these cars as an extension of themselves. Those stories are worth learning about and knowing, and we can share them with the public by using archival material.
What is one of your favorite activities that comes with overseeing the Petersen Publishing Archive?
I like to reserve a couple of days in the week during the afternoon to work on the conservation of rare books. I enjoy picking up a deteriorating vintage book and repairing it; something about re-gluing the binding and cleaning up the pages is relaxing to me. Books are so tangible and feel special in your hands. I am a proponent of reading and self-learning, and books are a portal to that. Many of these books are no longer published, and people might not know they can access them. Conserving books is my bread and butter; you can lock me up in a room for a week and throw away the key. Just don't forget the coffee.