Museums, Historic Buildings, and Oases: The Place of Places in Los Angeles

Earlier this week, I sat in as the co-moderator of a discussion about museums and historic sites at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, The discussion was part of a new series of Conversations in Place at the rancho.

The participants were W. Richard West, Jr., president and CEO of The Autry National Center of the American West; Milford Donaldson, FAIA, chairman of the US Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; Stephen Farneth, FAIA, founding principle of the Architectural Resources Group; and Pamela Seager, executive Director of Rancho Los Alamitos, along with Claudia Jurmain, the rancho's director of Special Projects and Publications.

The presentations and panel discussion aimed at finding the place in our lives of sites like the Autry and the rancho.

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From my perspective (which I imagine might the audience's) the rancho and the Autry are places of memory -- places where the materials of memory are held and presented in context and in juxtaposition, They seem to me to be places where memories are "pinned" to the cultural landscape of Southern California.

But as I learned from the conversation, places like the rancho and the Autry are more than places of memory. Just exactly what they are isn't settled.

Questions of authority, representation, appropriation, and many others complicate how visitors engage with sites in Southern California that assert the durability of meanings and memories which lie outside the purely personal. What interested me in this discussion was an added question -- to what extent do places set apart from the everyday function as meeting places, not only of visitors but also of everything a place might include.

My co-moderator Claudia Jurmain called Rancho Los Alamitos an oasis. Her idea of a place of refreshment and reflection does get at the interweaving of material culture (houses and barns and the stuff in them) with the cycles of recurring nature (in the rancho gardens) and the persistence of memories that are individual, communal, and historical.

The rancho -- like few other places in Southern California -- enfolds specificities of landscape, history, and memory that have the capacity to form what geographer Doreen Massey calls a "locality." In such a place, Massey writes, "sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating ... catch people up in something that feels like something." For Massey, the goal of a sojourn in an affective landscape (where some things feel like something) isn't a consoling, melancholic nostalgia.

The purpose in the meeting of site, stuff, and persons is an active and shareable sense of place "which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local."

A visit to a museum might be edifying, amusing, informative, or startling. It might evoke the sentiments of a religious experience. Walking though an exhibition might be a form of collecting (even hoarding). But the museum visit -- or an encounter with a historic building -- too often falls sort of the conjunction of things, memories, fugitive sensations, recurring habits of being, lingering conviviality, and subjective time from which a sense of place is made.

Arguably, a sense of place is not what a museum is supposed to deliver. But as we investigate the past for its affective traces, we should always require of the places that make claims about the past that they do not leave us stranded in history but ground us ever more richly in tomorrow's global community.

The second of four Conversations in Place -- "Should Our Future Cling to the Past?" -- is Sunday, September 14 with Joel Kotkin, author of "The Next 100 Million: America in 2050" and "The New Class Conflict"; Julia Huang, founder/CEO of interTRENDS Communication; and Gustavo Arellano, author of "¡Ask A Mexican!" and "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

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