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Southern California's Unique Museum-Hotel: Consuming the Past and Preserving Fantasy at Riverside's Mission Inn, 1903-2010


This dissertation examines the significance of the National Historic Landmark Mission Inn Hotel in Riverside, California, through the lens of public history. This interdisciplinary work considers how history has been made and remade at the Mission Inn throughout the long twentieth century, in so doing connecting the hotel's local narrative to the broader national and transnational processes of consumerism, tourism, imperialism, urban redevelopment, and the contemporary politics of historical interpretation.

First, this work firmly places the Mission Inn within the historiography of Southern California, positing that although the site is largely missing from the major works on the region's history, through its architecture, advertising campaigns, and historical pageants staged at the hotel, the Mission Inn was as an integral site in the growth of the Southern California tourist industry that was based on a mythic mission past.

This dissertation then shifts to explore the Inn's object collections and their central role in the hotel's enterprise within the context of the nation's burgeoning consumer culture. The hotel's elaborate exhibitions are linked to the larger development of the nation's public and proprietary museums that were used for education, entertainment, and, in cases like the Mission Inn, as moneymaking enterprises. The avenues allowing hotel proprietor Frank Miller to acquire his international collections during the early twentieth century are also inextricably bound to U.S. imperial designs, which gave him access to places around the world to collect exotic treasures for his hotel.

From midcentury onward the Mission Inn's popularity waned and it slowly decayed from years of delayed maintenance. Purchased by the City of Riverside in 1976, the Inn was a contentious hallmark of the city's redevelopment initiative, mirroring the larger state and national push to renew downtown urban cores.

Today, the Mission Inn is a study in the perils of public/private partnerships in the public history field. While the hotel is run as a for-profit hotel a non-profit is responsible for educational programming and stewarding the Inn's historic collections. The fragile relationship is continually tested based on the organizations' fundamentally different goals. Interpreting the hotel's history is always a political quagmire.

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