Catalina Island Museum's Glidden Collection Featured on The History Channel
Catalina Island Museum
The Catalina Island Museum has attracted national attention recently for a number of ground-breaking exhibitions, and just last month the History Channel sent a film crew to the museum to film its most recent installment of its award-winning series Search for the Lost Giants. The popular television program is hosted by the brothers Jim and Bill Vieira. The brothers travel throughout the country seeking evidence that giants once roamed the American landscape. Their search brought the brothers to the Catalina Island Museum, where they researched an archive of material related to the mysterious amateur archaeologist and collector Ralph Glidden.
Glidden excavated Catalina Island’s interior for nearly half a century, and his work between 1920 and 1922 was prolific by any standard. He excavated at least 800 gravesites from 105 individual locations from around the island. He accumulated unquestionably the largest collection ever assembled of human remains and artifacts related to the native people of Catalina Island. A few islanders remember the makeshift museum Glidden cobbled together on a hillside overlooking Avalon’s harbor, in which he exhibited his collection in what he called a “museum.”
The Vieira brothers were intrigued by Glidden’s discoveries, especially his excavation of skeletal remains of such size that they demonstrated the supposed existence of giants on the island. In 1928, Glidden announced his most widely reported discovery: the excavation of a magnificent soapstone urn, which is now in the collection of the Catalina Island Museum. Glidden, who was a shameless promoter, reported that he found inside this "funerary" urn the skeleton of a young girl—a princess, perhaps—clutching the vessel’s rim. Encircling the urn were the skeletons of sixty-four children, and beneath it all were the remains of a giant man, killed apparently by the spear that remained lodged in his side. Newspapers around the country reported Glidden’s account. But the entire story was a fiction. Glidden could never provide evidence of the elaborate and bizarre burial. Although he often took a large number of photographs documenting his excavations, only one photograph exists of the urn’s disinterment, and this provides no evidence substantiating his claim. During the ensuing twenty years, Glidden continued to disseminate to the press exaggerated accounts of his discoveries.
The Vieira brothers make a point of noting in their program that although Glidden uncovered hundreds of burial sites and thousands of artifacts, his approach to the organization of what he excavated can only be described as haphazard. His research followed no scientific method. But perhaps the most heinous and unforgiveable aspect of his work was his near total disregard for the sacredness of human remains. The fact that he treated skeletal remains as something titillating, and felt justified in doing so because they were Native American—and not Caucasian or European—is as grotesque as it is inescapable. Unfortunately, his prejudices toward the American Indian reflect an attitude of the time. But there is little doubt that prejudice was an insurmountable obstacle that kept Glidden from obtaining what he wanted most: professional respectability and public notoriety. He achieved neither. The reason was simple: most people found Glidden’s attitudes repugnant.
View The Search for the Lost Giant: The Giant Curse online at www.history.com/shows/search-for-the-lost-giants/videos/the-giant-curse
The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history. The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open 7 days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, the museum may be reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.