Imagine yourself in Los Angeles 150 years ago. The landscape is almost barren from buildings, at least the high rises we are used to today. Open land dominates the scene and farms dot the landscape, until oil derricks moved in shortly after and reshaped the terrain . Now imagine 150,000 years ago in Los Angeles. Saber tooth tigers, wooly mammoths, and early humans lived side by side. Its hard to even imagine what life would be like for early humans in a hunter gatherer lifestyle. This was the beginning of my site from a cultural perspective.
Separated by time and achievement the Rancho La Brea area of Los Angeles has seen its fair share of change and development. The tar pits, which have existed for hundreds of thousands of years have stored a lot of the ancient history of our predecessors. The tar pits today, are still as active as they were thousands years ago. This little glimpse of what life would have been like is preserved and revered for its history and uniqueness. No wonder they decided in the 1960s to build the biggest art gallery since the National Gallery right on this historical site bringing together ancient and modern cultures to exist in the same space. This culture space in very important to me, because it brings together two sides of my life that I cherish. I’ve been going to traditional art museums since I was a little boy and art always fascinated me, and as I matured I really got into modern art. Besides my love for the arts my second passion is science especially natural sciences. The study of us as an organism brings so much more depth into my life and makes me understand more of our amazing journey until this point. These spaces hold a tremendous amount of cultural power, that they really define certain areas of our life.
LACMA has so many masterpieces in its collection, and it uses the notoriety from famous artists to add to its prestige. The tar pits use the amazing finds they have uncovered to support their museum and cement their place in history as an archeological gold mine. Everyone who comes to Los Angeles might not know LACMA, but they will understand what it is automatically when you tell them its an art museum, but for the tar pits everyone knows what its, as it has been made famous in movies and textbooks. Many people though don’t understand what was recovered from the tar pits. Many believe dinosaurs make up most of the finds, but they would be way off. The tars pits are several thousand years old, while dinosaurs were several million years old. This common misconception is usually changed when they hear that wooly mammoths, saber tooth tigers, wolves and ancient humans make up most of the remains. This is alone makes people think they are going to see our earliest ancestors, when in fact these caveman had been around for a lot longer then we think. The ability to see the best, worst, oldest, most expensive is instilled in us at a very young age. Parents always point out the best athlete or some other record breaking event. We as humans look for the unique and special. That’s why everyone wants to believe they are seeing the first of something like human remains, or the most expensive painting at an exhibit. That alone seems enough to visit theses sites just to view the pinnacles of an area of life. The ability to find wonder in things that aren’t always the best or worst, makes you a more well rounded and educated person. Step away from the hype and enjoy what you have in front of you because you never know what will touch you personally. The history of my sites are very rich and will add depth and breath to areas of life, that we usually take for granted and show how our power struggles have defined life as we know it.
LACMA was established in 1965 on the open space near the La Brea tar pits on an area of land that was originally called Rancho La Brea.(Harris) Henry Hancock a lawyer for the Rocha family, rancheros of Los Angeles, fought in the 1860s for the Rocha’s to retain Rancho La Brea and won their case. (Harris) The legal fees though bankrupted the Rochas and they turned the land over to Mr. Hancock. This land was passed on to his famous son who turned much of the area into oil fields. The land, which LACMA and the tar pits were on, was eventually handed over to the city of Los Angeles in the late 1800s. (Harris) The rich oil field in that area soon dried up and all was left was the tar pits. They started to excavate bones from the tar pits and realized what a unique site they had to be explored. They are still pulling out fossils to this day. This site was used exclusively for the tar pits until 1965 when LACMA was built on the land right next to it creating the famous site we all know today. Then Wilshire Boulevard was the main thorough fair through Los Angeles making the site a must see in Los Angeles. LACMA has ever since the 60s had an amazing collection of art, even starting out they had tens of thousand of pieces of art now they are up in the hundreds of thousands of pieces. This bastion for art in Los Angeles has served us well for many years, but as cultures change so do their sanctuaries. The museum was remodel 4 times since its opening including new buildings and is currently going through another complete makeover of the site. The entrance of LACMA can be confusing as there are technically a few ways of getting in, but now they are going to change that by creating a grand entrance way to really show the public this is the special area you are entering and it deserves a grandiose presentation. The museum will continue to grow as its builds news galleries for its every increasing number of art works. Next door the La Brea Tar pits which have been unchanged almost since the first building was built in the 1970s.(Harris) They are creating new viewing areas of the pits and have what they call a “fish bowl’ laboratory in the main building where you can actually watch scientist clean bones and reconstruct animals. When I was there last they were working on a huge Wooly Mammoth, and they had its entire tusk out getting clean along with other massive bones trying to recreate another full Mammoth skeleton. These places have to constantly update their events to keep the public interested and engaged as they rely on the public to keep them running. LACMA does this in part by having new exhibits on a monthly basis to supplement their awesome collection. This is always a way of showing what new ideas the museum can conquer and bring to us. A lot of exhibits are hard to get and only go to well known museums, and even then competition is fierce. New exhibits bring in new crowds and more money. This combined with sponsors creating free admission days the museum becomes part of the local community not only through its support of art, but with its integration of local businesses and organizations.
The Rancho La Brea owners could never imagine what kind of importance their site would have to the culture and business of Los Angeles. The museums not only holds artistic and natural wonders, but the public themselves are amazing and what they take out of the experience differs widely amongst patrons and staff. The time I’ve spent gathering information from patrons and staff has given me another insights on the power of the museum and the role it plays as a teacher of art and science to the next generation and the current one. Making this site one of the greatest teaching aides in Los Angeles.
Visiting the site over the years I’ve encounter a lot of people, but this project gave me motivation to really go for it and not only interview people, but ask them to give me an ethnography of the site as well. This was one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever asked a stranger. Some people were very approachable, but many didn’t know how to respond. I had to clear up a lot of issues on what is an ethnography. I gave them a very simple answer. Ethnography is a scientific way of looking at a culture. I would further explain how someone might analyze a specific culture. I got some very interesting answers. I first asked the basic questions about the person and then asked them to do an ethnography of our culture incorporating the site. The absolute first person I interviewed talked to me for 1 hour. I knew her entire life by the end, but ill spare the details.
Sharon Guner is from San Diego and she was up visiting her sister. She was by herself, because everyone had to work. She is an avid art lover and this was her third time at LACMA. Sharon is 55 years old and has lived in San Deigo for the past 5 years, all the rest of the 50 she lived in Tampa, Florida. She was very happy to answer all my question and went very in depth, when I asked her to do an ethnography. I did have to explain to her what ethnography meant, but she caught on quickly. “I think that LACMA is a great mirror to LA culture. Its hard to get into, you always have to park, but when your inside you never want to leave.” – Sharon Guner. This definitely struck a cord with me having been born and raised in LA sometimes you need an outsider to truly give you perspective. I was starting to learn more about myself just talking to her as she went on to further explain LA and finally broader culture. She said that museums were these great building that took years to design and make to store symbols. She thought it was quite odd why a society would put so much meaning into these symbols to devote so much time to them. She admitted, ” I too am wrapped up in these symbols I find them fascinating.” I found it refreshing to meet someone, who is a art fan who doesn’t mull over the art as it is the end all be all, but understands this to be another symbol; moreover, to have culture contextual elements that enhance the fascination of these symbols. She reaffirmed my belief of looking at the whole picture, not just what you see, but everything that is wrapped up in it.
The next person I interviewed was a young man like myself and the same age 24. He was there was his girlfriend and I interviewed them both. Justin Hannah and Barbara Towle have been going out for 1 year, and this was their first trip in LACMA as they just moved from Santa Barbara 6 months ago. They both were born and raised in Santa Barbara. I interviewed them as a couple and I explain to them what I was doing. It took them a while to understand what an ethnography was, and I could tell this was the first time someone asked them to think about a museum or a culture that way, but they surprisingly pulled out some very interesting insights. Justin explained that he felt museums were built to hold all the very important things in a culture and that they displayed them so all humanity could benefit from their cultural significance. Barbara concurred and elaborated by saying that museums also constantly look for contemporary art which stimulates society to be more creative and passes down a culture to future generations giving them a greater breath of ideas to foster new art. She said, ” I believe that without great cultural institutions like museums humanity would lose its innovation.” We always talked about symbols in class, and the first thing I would think of when it came to my site was the art. I focused on the art until this interview, when it made me realize that LACMA is a symbol with greater depth then I thought. I’ve taken museums for granted, because I have had such access to them. These are wonderful institutions that need to be recognized on their own as being symbols of cultural advancement.
” They’re just bones ” – Tim Fimpler. This 5 year old from Los Angeles was hilarious. I interview him and his mom but he dominated the conversation. He thought the displays and tar pits were really cool, but he didn’t care about the bones. I tried to get him interesting in them saying how old they are, and maybe some were from humans like us. He could care less, that symbol did not matter to him. He just wanted to see the assembled displays. This little guy made me realize its true that we only really care about the finished presentation. Who wants to stare at one bone, when you could see hundreds towering above in form of a Wooly Mammoth. I watched the tar pit’s fish bowl exhibit where they have scientist expose in a glass room so you can watch them clean bones. First the spectacle of people behind glass draws people over, but most just look at the big mammoth tusk or leg bones, take a few pictures and move on. While there are so many other things happening in that room. It reminds me of people who go to museums, and I have been with many, who just want to see the most expensive art work like Van Gogh, etc and that’s it. Its cultural imperialism, we just want to see the best of something so we can assimilate it and move on. Like seeing a piece of art takes you up a notch in society. Tim helped me to realize the child in most of us and to reaffirm my belief in every symbol is special.
Museums bring together art and people and display them together in a space. The art teaches you more about the people observing it then it can about the painter who created it. These works speak to the people in our society and echo through the ages in great places of reverence. Museums are very quiet and respectful, where sometimes you can’t even take pictures, and forget your food and drink. These places hold great symbols of our culture, and must demand respect from their audience. The richest of the audience sets the high watermarks in terms of prices for these works creating lasting masterpieces throughout time and cementing an artist in the history books. These places not only bring out the past, but they ensure the future by stimulating new art and artist to stand on the shoulders of social giants and surpass them. The history of the world as we know it is store across the world in places like LACMA and the Tar pits. They have transformed the land they occupy and ensured its residence a cultural sanctuary, especially in the modern world as urban sprawl dominates the landscape. Los Angeles has always been my mother the place that us reared me from a little boy to a young man. I will always treasure its history as each day I learn more and more about it. The great places of art, history and science I have embraced as brothers, because of their unwavering resolve to knowledge. The dissection of my favorite area of Los Angeles, Rancho La Brea has been a privilege. The new enhanced tools like ethnography and semiotic analysis well better help me to see those great symbols in my life, and as I fully immerse myself in them, critically analyzing everything as I go for nothing is absolute. Politics are in everything and I would be remiss not to mention how our society has conquered and destroyed many of the cultures we now display as our own. Although my site gives me much pride its also reminds me of the mistakes humans all to often make, and that exploiting them is not the right answer. I too am guiltily of imperialism, whether it comes with traveling or visiting museums, but I am conscience of it now and that is the first step to changing.