Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Militant Takes On The Natural History Museum's 'Becoming Los Angeles' Exhibit!

Though The Militant Angeleno blog is not a history blog per se, it was intended at its founding six years ago to educate what The Militant found back then to be a largely lost and clueless blogosphere in terms of basic knowledge and appreciation of life in Los Angeles. Back then, many transplants and natives alike still clung on to inaccurate pejorative generalized assumptions of Los Angeles, which were designed on purpose to deflate the pride and morale of this city's populace in the name of self-degradation. One of them was, "L.A. [sic] Has No History."

Really now. Even a settlement founded five minutes ago has a history. There is a backstory behind the hows and whys of the existence of that settlement, and the people who founded it. Not to mention that the settlement is now no longer five minutes old, but seven minutes old.

Despite that explanation, there are still some suckas who still insist that "L.A. [sic] Has No History." So instead of inflicting bodily harm on various people, The Militant decided to assume an identity and start a blog. The rest is history. Pun may or may not be intended.

The Natural History Museum is one of Los Angeles' first major civic institutions aimed at a populace that was inevitably bound to be more than just a sleepy agrarian town. A direct product of the "City Beautiful Movement" that swept the United States around the turn of the 20th Century, the museum opened 100 years ago on November 6, 1913. Along with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which opened the day before, these were civic benchmarks of a place that was undergoing a metamorphosis, as citrus groves and avocado orchards bordered by dirt roads were being transformed into commercial districts and neighborhoods bordered by paved streets.

More than just an old-ass building with dinosaur bones that occasionally becomes a hip venue for KCRW DJs, attaining centenarian status also meant re-asserting itself as an important and vibrant  institution of learning and discovery to a city that's undergoing a new kind of metamorphosis in the 21st Century. With that, they unveiled the new "Becoming Los Angeles" permanent exhibit earlier this month. The Militant was faithfully there on Thursday to Check. It. Out.

"Becoming Los Angeles" basically explains the transformation of Los Angeles in ecological and sociopolitical aspects from Tongva nation to Spanish pueblo to Mexican rancho to Californian town to American city. The Militant realizes that it's a herculean task to condense 232 years of written history (and the few thousand years of unwritten history that precedes it)  into 14,000 square feet of museum space. Though it's not perfect, it most definitely succeeds at explaining (to newbies and hardcore militant history buffs alike, and everyone in between) the hows and whys of the origins of this grand city that we live in.

The Militant will not attempt to give you a play-by-play rundown of the entire exhibit. He doesn't intend to not only because he thinks it's important that you visit this exhibit yourself and come away with your own experience of learning our city's history, but because he doesn't want to end up writing another overtly long-ass blog post that takes him into the wee-hours of the night and causes him wake up in the early afternoon, only to discover that maybe 30 people have bothered to read his volunteer dissertation (now you know why The Militant doesn't blog as much these days).

He will say that it's a largely aesthetically-pleasing , U-shaped exhibit, which is information-packed but not uncomfortably overwhelming. He will also say that even a militant Los Angeles history buff like The Militant learned a thing or two he either didn't know before, or was explained in much more coherent terms, like how cow poop was instrumental in changing the Los Angeles landscape (The Militant won't spoil it for you, if you didn't know already, then wait for the exhibit to break it down for ya). Incidentally, "poop" is the Museum's preferred synonym for feces/excrement/droppings/doo-doo/caca/shit, as its use is consistently used in the other exhibits (Dino poop, anyone?). He will also additionally say that some of the historical artifacts included here were mind-blowing in their inclusion, such as the actual table where The Freaking Treaty of Cahuenga was signed (to think that THE John C. Fremont and THE Andres Pico actually sat there...[mind blown]).  He will even more also additionally say that your Los Angeles History Geekdom can accurately be  measured by the amount of time in minutes (or hours) that you gaze at the Downtown Los Angeles Circa 1940 scale model and view it from various angles (and take photos of it). Mark The Militant's Word!

The Militant also stepped back and looked not just at the displays themselves, but at the people perusing them, with curiosity, delight and even various levels of expertise. It was quite a sight to see 21st Century Latinos make connections with their 19th Century counterparts, a number of which we get to be acquainted with by face and name via biography.  One of the visitors commented on the picture of Eutalia Perez de Guillen Marine, who lived to the age 112(!) and said she reminded her of her own great-grandmother, and how Señora Eutalia's eyes can "look into your soul." Others were equally fascinated by the 103 year-old Rogerio Rocha (Man, what were these people eating back then, that's what The Militant wants to know!), a blacksmith of Fernandeño Indian heritage who owned his own property in the SFV but lost it to Teh White Man when American property laws went into effect in the 1850s.

And for those who know your historical figures, people like Abel Stearns, Biddy Mason and Harris Newmark, among many others, get their due props here.

As The Militant mentioned earlier, "Becoming Los Angeles" isn't perfect. Though not adversely impacting the exhibit in any major way, he feels it could be much better if the following can somehow be addressed:

- The Native American section (described specifically as "Tongva-Gabrieleño" as various tribal factions have their own variations on the name) seems kind of nominal. Maybe it's because The Militant dedicated an entire month of posts on the original native Angelenos,  but you figured the people who have been here milennia longer than the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans combined should get a little more display love. We see some nice stone artifacts, but little in the way of what they looked like and what their environment was like. It would also have been awesome to see a map of Tongva villages overlaid on a modern Los Angeles like what The Militant did.

- The Pobladores display, though featuring a neato scale diorama and a full roster of the 44 founders of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula on September 4, 1781 by name, age and gender, still seems to be missing something. Maybe it's the (lack of) adequate lighting (these are the founders, c'mon!), maybe it's the awkward positioning in the exhibit (it's placed in a corridor, painted black, possibly easy to overlook), maybe it's way the description was written, which doesn't seem to make it plainly obvious why the Pobladores were dispatched from Mission San Gabriel and why they stopped where they stopped.

- On a similar note, the Pacific Electric display, though containing some nice mementos of our former rail transit system, doesn't seem to relay to the passing eye that it's presenting the history of a transportation system -- i.e. no pictures or models of streetcars.

- More interactive displays. The interactive video presentation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct was well done, The Militant expected a little more of that with the technology we have today. Maybe a display of how the freeway system grew over the years (many Los Angeles n00bs just assume it was built all at once when it, like today's Metro Rail system, was actually planned, funded, built and opened in phases).

- While the exhibit rightfully covers the impact of the motion picture industry, including some early artifacts, though it references the film industry's east coast origins, it doesn't explain why it ended up here (supposedly to escape possible lawsuits stemming from Thomas Edison's exclusive patent of the motion picture camera, and Hollywood, once located along a railroad line, was close enough to the Mexican border where scofflaw filmmakers could escape the country in a jiffy).

- The photo gallery along the walls towards the end of the exhibit have no captions/credits. Dunno if it's not finished yet, but it would help to have explanations for the pictures (The WWII photo display of multiethnic Angelenos involved in the war, flanking a photo of San Gabriel native Gen. George S. Patton looked nice though).

- The Internet! Dude, no mention whatsoever of The Internet's 1969 birth in a UCLA computer lab?! Whatup with that?

The exhibit ends with a photo montage projection of historic events from the 1940s to the 2010s and a video of the Los Angeles cityscape framed by questions that lead the visitor to ponder the city's future.
Because we are also a living part of Los Angeles history.

Do The Militant a favor and visit this exhibit. Give yourself about one and a half to two hours to enjoy the whole thing. Don't rush it (The Militant sorta did towards the end but it worked out in his favor since there was a power outage at the museum on Thursday afternoon). And after you do visit it, encourage your friends and family to visit it. And especially tell your friends/relatives transplanting themselves from Out East, Flyover Country and Up North to visit it, especially within their first month in town.

Los Angeles never lacked a history. But for the longest time we lacked a common mechanism in which to learn it. It's not something the LAUSD teaches its kids (nor is it something the LAUSD wants its kids to learn, especially in this era of standardized testing and their overall systematic decimation of learning). It wasn't until websites, blogs and social media made it easier to learn the hows and whys of this grand city, and glimpse into the way our familiar streets looked like to previous generations.

Visiting the "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit is probably one of the most important things you should be doing as an Angeleno. Though obviously not hyper-comprehensive, it's complete enough that it gives a baseline history that should form the basis of our common understanding of local history. And it stimulates our curiosities enough that if we want to learn more, we can. Militant-Approved!

Too bad it had to take 100 years to make all this happen.


Joan Myers said...

Thanks for the heads up, I shall be there SOONEST. Stay militant.

Unknown said...

Good write up on the exhibit, I was there last Friday and enjoyed the entire museum, I had not gone since I was a kid. It was great to see significance of the Tongva, Californinos and ranch history shared as this is not shared beyond our 4th grade lessons in California history. I agree with you about the significance of the Pacific electric railroad, key piece of LA history. It would have been nice to see an expanded section on LAs aerospace history, it was displayed in one small case. Some of the world's most significant aircraft and technologies were created here and part of our culture. Salud

Jacinda said...

I loved reading this and I will heed the militant's advice and go check it out ASAP! :-)

Anonymous said...

Being from Artesia, I enjoyed the Tongva map. I love history and I love L.A.