UCLA's Hammer Museum to feature artifacts from DeMille's 'The Ten Commandments' Guadalupe Dunes set
By JOE PAYNE
What may look like a mere heap of detritus in the Guadalupe Dunes is actually a historical site significant to local and California history. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 production of The Ten Commandments was staged there. The massive set and camp used by the cast and crew were left behind, swallowed up by the sands of time and the literal dune sands driven by the coastal winds.
As those same winds uncovered the plaster sphinx statues and temple wall in recent years, leaving the fragile artifacts open to the elements, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center raised funds to excavate a sizable portion of the historic set in a quest for preservation. The organization has returned to the set with archeologists, and has even scanned the area with ground-penetrating radar, which revealed quite a lot about the configuration of the set that has been buried there for nearly a century.
The shroud of time obscured what actually happened to the set piece, explained the Dunes Center’s Executive Director Doug Jenzen, who added that the original belief was that the set had been demolished and buried. But it appears that the set was left undisturbed, he explained.
“What we’re finding is everything is pretty much exactly where it was when it was filmed,” he said. “The sphinxes are in the same direction and the same places they were in the film. Plus, a lot of the statuary is in really good shape.”
The Dunes Center has been sitting on a large cache of artifacts since its excavations—more than it can house in its humble showing area—and those artifacts drew the attention of an artist working on a project for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Jenzen explained.
Daniel R. Small was selected as an artist to organize an exhibit designed to be a part of Made in L.A. 2016, a biannual exhibit at the Hammer Museum that focuses on the influence of Los Angeles in contemporary art. Small was motivated to create an exhibit that highlighted the influence of Hollywood on America’s perception of ancient Egypt after he acquired some original paintings from a famous casino inspired by that ancient civilization, he told the Sun.
“We’re folding in this larger arch of research and information that I’ve been gathering,” he said, “including these paintings that were excised from the walls of the Luxor in Las Vegas, which kind of recreated the memory from the film, but maybe a kind of pastiche memory of it.”
The art deco style found in the Ten Commandments set piece informed the design and feel of the Luxor, Small said, and arguably the American pop cultural perception of ancient Egypt.
Small is using the artifacts on loan from the Dunes Center, and the story of DeMille’s project, to explore a subtle and nuanced parallel that exists between ancient Egypt and DeMille’s depiction of the Old Testament Egypt in his film. He pointed to parallels like the workforce used to construct both the Giza pyramids and the Ten Commandments set, and the little bits of evidence they left behind, or how stories relating to the construction of both have become obscured by time, and almost mythic to those that relate them.
“I think that the project I’m trying to do ultimately is historiographic, in the sense that it’s about these things that fold back on themselves,” Small said. “They are seemingly coincidental but say something not just about history repeating itself, but about these intentions and desires that give this material relevance to the present.”
Jenzen also helped connect Small with the owner of Guadalupe’s Napa Auto Parts, Johnny Perry, to borrow some of the recovered statues he has on display at his shop.
To get everything to Los Angeles safely and securely, Jenzen also helped Small with that task, he said. He brought the artifacts from the Dunes Center and Perry’s collection to Los Angeles to aid in carefully unpacking and handling the fragile relics.
“It was pretty great helping to unpack and install the artifacts at the Hammer to see folks in LA working on something that’s been in the Napa Auto Parts store in Guadalupe,” Jenzen said. “They were cleaning it up and dusting it off and making it look really nice.”
Jenzen said he hopes the exhibit will help garner some attention on the Dunes Center’s efforts to excavate the ruins of DeMille’s set. There are already plans to go back out for more, he said. Santa Barbara County has approved some funding aid, which will be available as soon as the Dunes Center raises most of the money to pay for another round of archaeological excavation.
Anyone who has visited the Dunes Center knows that the small, historic Guadalupe house is just about packed with artifacts, interpretive exhibits, and more. But the organization received a huge windfall when the Minetti family donated the former Far Western Restaurant building to the nonprofit. Jenzen hopes to see the organization moved in within five years, he said, and there’s already funding pending for engineers, architects, and a museum planner to help renovate, retrofit, and curate the huge building.
A reopening at the current location is planned for July 30, Jenzen said, and will feature several new exhibits, offering a glimpse of what will come with the new, expanded location. He also has his ears open to the community, Jenzen said, and the new museum planner will conduct interviews with community members, asking what they would like to see in the new space.
“That way the community in the Central Coast is informing what we’re doing instead of the other, top-down way of looking at it,” he said. “So it’s an extremely exciting time to be a part of the Dunes Center, and a lot of it has to do with this movie set project.”
Arts Editor Joe Payne doesn’t want to end up an artifact buried in the sand. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.