Holyland Exhibition: A Reflection of a Middle Eastern Dream

 Holyland Exhibition exterior.

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" has been produced in tandem with this story. 


Nestled among the flipped houses clutching to the hills of Silver Lake, a large white house perches on a street corner. From the outside, the house is an anonymous face in the crowd of remodels and sleekly designed abodes, its manicured trees rustling with wind and sound of traffic speeding down a freeway, nearly cutting through its front yard. While the exterior seems unassuming, what is held inside is remarkable.

Welcome to the Holyland Exhibition, a home and museum dedicated to Antonia Futterer, an eclectic religious adventurer. His house was a center for Bible study in the early 20th century and a repository of treasures that he amassed while traveling the Middle East on a search for the Ark of the Covenant. Some even say he was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. While he never found the Ark, his collection is expansive. It includes ornate furniture from Syria, antique oil lamps, and even a centuries-old Egyptian sarcophagus. Five rooms display lavish tapestries, Armenian ceramics, and some kitschy souvenirs he picked up along the way. In 1924, he opened his collection -- then called the Palestine Exhibition -- to people of all faiths with the goal of bringing a bit of the Middle East to Los Angeles.

Futterer died in 1949 but his followers have tended to his artifacts ever since. For the last three decades, the collection has been maintained by octogenarian Betty Shepard and her daughter Karen, who lead public tours of Futterer's finds today.

Holyland Exhibition | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Holyland Exhibition. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Holyland Exhibition | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Holyland Exhibition. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Betty Shepard
Betty Shepard.

Futterer was born in Australia in 1871. He never finished his elementary schooling, instead he worked for his father's business of weaving cane furniture. As the Australian gold rush escalated in the 1890s, Futterer moved to Western Australia to dig for treasures. During his journey he became sick, and he almost died of appendicitis. While in agony, Futterer made a wager with God. "As he's lying on his death bed," Betty says during a recent tour of the Exhibition, "he's thinking to himself, 'I'm too young to die yet I don't know how to live. What am I gonna do? I'm afraid to die.' he said, 'God, if you let me live, I keep your commandments.' So he made a pact with God. He wasn't healed right away, because God will tested him to see if he really meant what he said. But Mr. Futterer being Mr. Futterer, meant what he said and as time went on, he was healed. And that's when he began his life of faith."

Futterer's teaching room, with Bedouin-style tables | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Futterer's teaching room, with Bedouin-style tables. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Futterer traveled Australia preaching to anyone who would listen. He eventually moved to Oakland, California after meeting evangelist Alexis Jefferies, who was the father of famed Los Angeles boxing champ Jim Jefferies. Futterer created an educational system to help understand the Bible, especially the morass of lineages in the Old Testament, and he even invented a sort of projection device that could display images of bible scenes he colored by hand. His method was contained in the book "Futterer's Eye-Ographic Holyland Bible Travelogue Rapid Visual System," which was published in 1918. He eventually settled in Los Angeles, and in 1924 he founded the Holyland Bible Knowledge Society in Edendale, the neighborhood which would become Silver Lake. At the time, it was a small neighborhood in the hills, the Pacific Electric Red Car trains coursed through the valley, passing right through Futterer's front yard where the freeway traverses today. Photos displayed at the Exhibition reveal a pastoral past of this now bustling, upwardly-mobile neighborhood, including wandering donkeys and snow speckled barren landscape around Futterer's home.

An early photo of the Futterer's Bible School in Edendale, the neighborhood that  would become Silver Lake.
An early photo of Futterer's Bible School in Edendale, the neighborhood that would become Silver Lake.
The Angelus Temple and Aimee Semple McPherson
The Angelus Temple and Aimee Semple McPherson.

Los Angeles in the 1920s was fertile grounds for religious activity, and Futterer fit in with a growing cadre of spiritual start-ups in the North Eastern region. In 1923, enormously influential Christian evangelist and radio broadcaster Aimee Semple McPherson opened her expansive Angelus Temple housing the congregations of her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel on the banks of Echo Park Lake, a close distance to her contemporary, and friend, Futterer's home. Paramahansa Yogananda, "the father of yoga in the West," based his Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters nearby in the neighborhood of Mount Washington in 1925 too. As the nascent Hollywood was growing as place create and distribute movies, local religions looked to Los Angeles as an amplifier for their messages too.

Interdenominational students would study according to Futterer's Bible system at the school, and some would live there too. "Anybody could come here and take the classes because he'd teach them here, of course," Betty says, "and then in 1926, he went to Israel -- or Palestine -- to look for the Ark of the Covenant."

Futterer's Book, "Palestine Speaks" | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Futterer's Book, "Palestine Speaks." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.   
Map inside "Palestine Speaks" | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Map inside "Palestine Speaks." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Futterer had thought he had discovered the exact location of the ark that held the 10 Commandments, so he began his two-year exploration of the region. William Randolph Hearst's paper the Los Angeles Examiner caught wind of his story and he was dubbed "the Ark Explorer." His connections and collection began to amass as he journeyed, and he began sending hundreds of artifacts and some touristic items back to Silver Lake.

Later, in 1931, Futterer published a kind of proto-travel guide to the region, culled from his adventures. Entitled "Palestine Speaks," the book's jacket reads, "By The pioneer Golden Ark Explorer... An Up-to-Date Timely Tour through all parts of the Holyland with a thorough explanation of its past and photographs of its present of every essential place of interest to everybody interested in the most remarkable country in all the world. With some references to its remarkable future by FUTTERER, A. F."

Holyland Exhibition | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Holyland Exhibition. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Holyland Exhibition | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Holyland Exhibition. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Among the scores of trinkets at the museum, a section of artifacts was gifted to Futterer by Egypt archaeologists, who donated their 1933 World's Fair exhibition to his museum.

Futterer lived out the final years of his life on the island of Cyprus, but his collection lives on at the Exhibition, under the care of the Shepards. The Exhibition is self sustaining with a fee of $2.50 for visitors who make an appointment. It has no website, visitors just can call Betty for an tour. As the neighborhood changes, the Exhibition stays the same, as the Shepards continue to tell Futterer's story. "The place has never been in debt. It owes nobody anything," Karen says. "You know, the Bible says to owe no man anything but God's love. We live each day as it comes."


While the Exhibition's collection fits the bill as a fun discovery of "hidden Los Angeles," the collection takes on other meanings. For some, it's a tribute to a wacky man who may or may not have been "the real Indiana Jones." For others, it's a religious destination that breathes life into the age-old stories extolled in Vacation Bible School. Yet another interpretation considers Futterer's Exhibition not simply a museum of things, but as a window into the way Americans of the time imagined the Holyland.

Museums like the Exhibition were often conduits for how people understood the world, but by contemplating the institution itself, we learn about society around it. Like how Los Angeles' Natural History Museum, a 1913-built institution featuring taxidermy dioramas of Serengeti antelopes and drawers displaying disembodied bird wings, creates a snapshot of the early 20th century compulsion to collect and systematize, the Exhibition commemorates an idea: the Western Dream of the Middle East.

Holyland Exhibition | Photo: Drew Tewksbury
Holyland Exhibition. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Pulp Magazines of the early 20th Century
Pulp magazines of the early 20th century.

In Futterer's curation of his own Holyland, his inclusions and omissions create a portrait that reflects the cultural zeitgeist of the time. In 1924, the year Futterer opened the doors of his School, representations of an imagined Middle East were rampant. It was the era of silent movies like 1924's dreamy "Thief of Baghdad," starring Angeleno heart-throb Douglas Fairbanks, and dime-novel pulp magazines, which extolled tales of adventurers traveling through the wild west or to the imagined opulence of "the Orient." For some moviegoers of the time, fact and fiction of the Middle East were inextricably interlocked as films like Rudolph Valentino's 1921 silent flick "The Sheik" distorted the boundary between caricature and reality for unassuming audiences. As Futterer's collection grew, he was even tapped by movie studios to lend his artifacts as props for the films, Betty says, further fueling the Middle Eastern myth machine. Remember, this was decades before Disneyland created their hermetic buffet of artificial international flavors. Movies and museums were proxies for the real world.

A view of the courtyard of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre with statues of an Egyptian king, Indian elephants. Billboard advertising for Douglas Fairbanks "The Thief of Bagdad." The theatre opened in 1922.
A view of the courtyard of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre with statues of an Egyptian king, Indian elephants. Billboard advertising for Douglas Fairbanks "The Thief of Bagdad." The theatre opened in 1922.
Ocean Park Bath House on the Santa Monica Beach
Ocean Park Bath House on the Santa Monica Beach.

Southern Californian architecture of Futterer's era reflected this glance toward the Middle East too. A "Moorish" revivalist fervor spread across the city, as new structures didn't mimic actual Middle Eastern buildings as they did their celluloid simulations. The turn-of-the-century Ocean Park Bath House on the Santa Monica beach sported crescent moons and towers. The Shrine Auditorium in the West Adams district opened in 1925, where its towering domes still stand, although it's home to raucous raves and concerts today. The cityscape around Futterer seemed to inform the aesthetics of his collection.

The Shrine Auditorium
The Shrine Auditorium.

Futterer was also born into the late Victorian Era's age of adventurers, a glut of both real and imaginary explorers who permeated the expanses of the British Empire into the 20th century. While Rudyard Kipling's tales of India and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" ignited Western readers' imaginations with exciting, exotic, and largely hyperbolized locales, the real photographs of Ernest Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica or mountaineer George Mallory's Himalayan expeditions codified discoverers as rockstars of the time period. War reporter Lowell Thomas' photographs of British soldier T.E. Lawrence dressed in Bedouin clothing during the British domination of North Africa, served as a virtual superimposition of Western face with an Eastern fantasy, an image that lead him to be dubbed "Lawrence of Arabia" and a mythic military hero. Futterer's own exploits were heavily photographed, providing amble imagery of him wrapped in robes and working with locals in his travels. One photo even shows his descent into a hole atop Mt. Nebo, into a cavern where he found ancient pictographs, but no Ark. The same image mirrors a scene later portrayed in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where Indiana Jones lowers into "the staff room." Futterer's embraced his title of "Ark Explorer" title alongside his religious endeavors, reflecting style of the "gentleman adventurer" that was popular at the time.

Finally, Futterer's collection illuminates a particularly interesting time in the Middle East. In the 1920s, Middle East, as its colloquially called, was also a new idea to the West. The recent fall of the Ottoman Empire redefined the cultural supremacy at the time, and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement allowed the European colonial powers to carve up the area into the countries that exist, or are being redrawn, today. Now a stroll through the lavishly intricate furniture of Futterer's Damascus room doesn't just symbolize a look to ancient or Biblical times, instead it reveals an insight into a world currently at war, as the Syrian war rages on. It offers an alternate way to imagine the cratered landscapes broadcast in the media. In this way, Futterer's vision still succeeds, providing a lens through which modern audiences -- like the Exhibition's visitors in the 1920s -- still experience the excitement and exoticization of this seemingly remote region.


(With additional reporting from Nick Hardcastle and Alicia Clark.)


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