Keeping Historic Houses Relevant (or Getting Over Ourselves in order to Connect People with Places and Things)

Hale House in Los Angeles, CA

Within the United States, Los Angeles is not exactly known for its historic house museums. Owing to its relatively late industrialization and urbanization, it never had the abundance of pre-Civil War era homes that places like New England are famous for and many of the historic houses that did exist were demolished in the name of urban renewal to make space for more “efficient” post-war housing and industry. Nevertheless, there are more than a few notable historic homes in the Los Angeles area: in this post, I’d like to talk about my experience with one cluster of historic homes that make up the Heritage Square Museum.

Located off the Arroyo Seco Parkway (a narrow, winding old highway that cuts through the hills of Northeast Los Angeles) at the end of a cul-de-sac in the working-class neighborhood of Montecito Heights, it is a relic of the Victorian era. The immaculately maintained houses look like beautiful haunted houses and growing up, I thought they were. It wasn’t until the 2016 Museums of the Arroyo (MOTA) Day that I realized that these houses are indeed haunted: haunted by the specter of antiquated historic house museum practices.

Normally, the price of admission prevented me from visiting. But on MOTA Day, when several local museums offered free admission, I came with my younger sister. While the folks working the admission table were friendly, some of the house guides were not. I did not see a sign prohibiting photography, so I tried to take a photo of the interior of a house and was promptly yelled at by a guide. This startled me and set the tone for the rest of my experience.

I don’t think the guide was trying to be rude. Like people in other professions, museum professionals can forget how much authority they have in certain situations and how this comes across to visitors. Unfortunately, this makes us worse at our job, which is to connect people to objects and places. Reading the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums was a helpful reminder of this and I appreciated its strategies for engaging visitors and communities.

Historic house museums are often paradoxical in that they are homes but you do not feel at home. The philosophy of the Anarchist’s Guide basically boils down to enhancing communication through self-awareness and empathy. You are interested in a subject: now imagine someone could be less interested in this subject than you. You grew up in a certain class: now imagine a person grew up in a different one. Imagine these things and now with this knowledge, try and connect to other people, as fellow humans with their own thoughts, bodies, and experiences. Within the context of house museums, enhanced communication serves the role of facilitating a meaningful experience for the visitor with regard to education and interpretation.

Recently, it seems like the Heritage Square Museum has made efforts to address its shortcomings, through programs like the Inhabit Heritage Square Museum. The Inhabit Heritage Square Museum site describes it as “a new program which asks artists who reside in Los Angeles to interpret and explore the historical buildings and the site of Heritage Square Museum. Artists will present works that question notions of preservation, interact playfully with the collection, and foreground Los Angeles as a site of exploration.” This sounds cool and I hope it’s just the beginning of future efforts to increase communication, connection, and goodwill with the surrounding community and visitors. As they are, the houses of the Heritage Square Museum serve as attractions for film crews, wedding venue seekers, and fans of historical architecture, but they have the potential to do so much more.

Works Cited

“About.” Inhabit Heritage Square, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

MOTA. Museums of the Arroyo Day, 2017, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

Vagnone, Franklin D; Ryan, Deborah E; Cothren, Olivia B; Sorin, Gretchen. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Walnut Creek: Taylor and Francis, 2016. Ebook Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

“Visit.” Heritage Square Museum, 2013, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.


In case anyone hasn’t already picked this up from my raccoon-filled computer background and general ethos, I will clarify that I am in fact an anarchist. Anarchy gets a bad name from things like The Purge or Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises (though I have very nuanced and extensive thoughts about the ladder for another time). However, as we can see from Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, anarchy isn’t all about destruction. Of course, by nature anarchy isn’t really about anything, or rather, it’s about a vast and varied number of things depending on the practitioner. For me, anarchy is about acknowledging that systems are enacted—something we affirm or deny in every interaction. For this reason, I see the structures we live in as inherently chaotic and only made systematic through our perception and enaction of that systematicity. This is not just a vibe I get, there is political, economic, behavioral, and linguistic data that show this. So if you grant that social structures are constructed and reconstructed on a case-by-case basis, anarchy then is about radical trust, intimacy, and responsibility between people constructing this thing together.

But my pontification aside, I was both enamored and skeptical of The Anarchist’s Guide. For many of the points—like making HHM’s voyeuristic, tactile, well-staffed and explained, and engaged in the surrounding intersectional community (rather than condescendingly “engaging the community”)—I couldn’t agree more. However, there were a couple moments where I thought perhaps the utopic ideology of radical change and anarchy prevented the author from articulating a nuanced perspective. First, I found the rather uncritical championing of social media engagement and subsequent tailoring of museum content to the brief forms available pretty eye-rolly. From the perspective of being engaged in the community, hell yes, Snapchat the shit out of your historic dentures. However, in our current political climate where tweets are authoritative and the news is fake, I wish there had been a more nuanced analysis of using social media to convey “facts.”

Secondly, in the argument about making museums exciting places to be, the author references the Futurist Movement and Marinetti’s descriptions of a bright, pulsing modernity. This may be the picky art historian in me, but Marinetti and the Futurists were fascists! Find someone better to prove your anarchist point please, there have to be plenty. Otherwise, great read, so important for all of us. Don’t be stuffy and boring and impersonal and restrictive! Go forth and do anarchy!

Non-Object Based Cultural Appropriation (?)

Conn in particular, though it’s certainly a running theme in all of these readings, identifies that objects are no longer central to the conception and function of the museum (58). (I mean, the entire book is called ‘Do Museums Still Need Objects?’, so that’s not insightful.) Still, though, Conn’s discussion around of objects in the issues of repatriation highlights issues specific to cultural work around displaying and interpreting these objects.

It’s difficult, though, to discuss cultural appropriation in this larger context – not limited to objects, but to festivals, language, activities, ideas. These “objects,” not tangible to the museum element, are still just as relevant to our questions around our work and practice. But in the object-focused culture surrounding museum collections, the visual aid limits the types of conversations we can have about stereotypes and cultural  appropriation. It places the issue first and foremost on the physical presence of the object, making the connections – programming, interpretation, or other – seem tangentially solved. These readings made me feel as though cultural appropriation doesn’t happen, at least for the same reasons, with the non-tangible “objects.”

But we know it does happen – as Rica’s presentation brings up with intellectual property, or as Scafidi describes in the legal issues around African-American music like jazz and blues. And in some cases, like in Scafidi’s case of depreciative commodification, the symbolism or images that depict an aspect of culture should be just as scrutinized as the use of objects themselves.  Though our readings make a distinction between repatriation and appropriation, the issues are intrinsically linked – even more so cases without visual or tangible elements.

Clifford seems to challenge this idea then – making museums-as-contact-zones less about the objects, but about the relationships between object and culture, people and place. Still, the object is central to exploring the contact zone and structuring collections in this fashion. But I want to take it a step further and remove the physical element of objects entirely. What happens to these discussions of cultural appropriation in digital, exploratory spaces? How do digital-born objects experience cultural appropriation, and in what ways can they be rehabilitated or repatriated? How do reproductions function in this space, when the text, language, or associated materials? In what ways is cultural appropriation minimized or amplified in these environments? Digital projects, spaces, and collections should have the same responsibilities as museums to ensure, but in what ways is cultural appropriation occuring  when the object is partially (or entirely) removed from the situation?

Totally CRAZY Examples of Cultural Appropriation (Only 90’s Kids Will Know #6)

1.) “Wise Guy” by Joe Pesci

I bet you didn’t know that Joe Pesci could spit bars! Oh wait, he can’t. Let’s back up: Pesci was a lounge singer before he got into acting, but he refused to give up music after he made it big time. “Wise Guy” is off his second studio album, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, which is somehow based on his 1992 hit film My Cousin Vinnie. Don’t miss clever rhymes like “and I’ll take your eyes/’cause I’m a wise guy.”

Appropriation of black music was a big theme in the readings for class this week and while I think I was supposed to be thinking about Eminem and Elvis, my mind kept drifting to this ridiculous song and video, with its awkward and technically underwhelming shoehorning of Italian-American gangster culture into a rap format.

2.) The 1992 Superbowl Halftime Show

If you only watch one video on this list, make it this one. The fact that this show actually happened is hard to believe. Organized around the amorphous theme of “Winter Magic,” this show was one of the grandest, most incoherent pageants ever witnessed.  Watching the video is really the only way to appreciate it.

Cultural appropriation highlights at 2:33, 3:34 and 4:33. The final one is a hip hop inspired number that implores Frosty the Snowman to “Pump it up!” Other lyrical highlights include “Go Frosty, Go Frosty, Go!/Yo Frosty, Yo Frosty, Yo!” Directly following, Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill do a figure skating performance on two surfaces that appear too small for a board meeting, let alone a Lutz.

This halftime show was so poorly received that the NFL completely rethought their process, which resulted in Michaela Jackson delivering one of the most iconic halftime performances of all time at the next Superbowl. This set the stage for the pop extravaganzas that we are familiar with today.

3.) Eurovision

There are all kinds of Eurovision acts out there ranging from famous ones like ABBA to things that are impossible to differentiate from parody (I’m looking at you Ukraine). As far as cultural appropriation goes, check out “Watch my Dance” by Loucas Yiorkas and Stereo Mike, Greece’s entry from 2011. Blending hip hop and b-boy with Corinthian columns and what I can only assume is some sort of traditional Greek song, this act is bizarre (not to mention dreadful).

I am curious about Loucas Yiorkas and Stereo Mike’s contact zones vis-à-vis hip hop. Stereo Mike’s Wikipedia page mentions that he studied in the U.K. and worked with British rappers (who themselves appropriated hip hop). I gleaned no similar insights from Loucas Yiorkas’ Wikipedia page. I suspect that in both cases

4.) Aunt Jemima’s

Where to begin? I mean aside from the caricature of Aunt Jemima herself.

A few things strike me about this ad. First, it tells men to ask their wives to serve them Aunt Jemima’s, which seems about the most patriarchal way to try to sell something possible. Second, Aunt Jemima’s is nasty and made entirely of corn syrup. It was the fist think that sprang to mind when I read about Korean’s taking offense to Japanese imitation kimchi in the Scafidi reading. This is because where I come from, syrup is made from trees and not cornstalks, but we have to contend with the cheap imitation (I realize that this might be the most privileged gripe about cultural appropriation ever).

5.) Taco Bell

Taco Bell’s marketing has incorporated various levels of cultural appropriation over the years. On the mild side: this 70’s spot which, as far as I can tell, only perpetuates the extant appropriation of the restaurants themselves, namely the food itself and those strange uniforms that the staff wears. I can’t tell if the music is supposed to have some sort of Latin flair, mostly it just seems like a soulless corporate jingle. On the high level of appropriation end of the scale we have Gorditas, the taco dog.

6.) “Numb/Encore” by Likin Park and Jay-Z

That’s right. The ultimate early 00’s crossover appeal track. The story behind this song (and I’m totally making this up, but I’m pretty sure it’s right on the money) is that a record label exec thought: “Hey, how can I make an album that appeals to two gigantic but distinct fan bases? Hmmm… I should combine nu-metal and hip hop.” The sad thing is that that person was right: mindlessly titled “Collision Course” went platinum.

This song was so popular while I was a freshman in high school that was able to compete with “Yeah!” and “Hey Ya!” for the distinction of biggest crowd pleaser at school dances. Now, of course, everyone realizes that “Numb/Encore” is just a terrible piece of music. I’m proud to say that it was never on my iPod Mini.

An interesting and completely ridiculous angle on this is whether nu metal represents a marginalized community who had their cultural products ripped off for corporate profit. If this is the case, I think we can all agree that Korn were the first sellouts.

Cultural Appropriation at Effigy Mounds National Monument


While reading about cultural appropriation this week, I was reminded of a big story in the Park Service last year regarding “missing” native remains at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. It turns out the prehistoric remains affiliated with many modern day Indigenous tribes were not really missing, but stolen in 1990 … by the park’s superintendent. Just before NAGPRA went into effect in 1990, the superintendent at the time stole and hid all the native remains from the park’s museum in his garage because he didn’t want to repatriate the funerary objects that they were buried with. Perhaps the most ridiculous part is that no one found out until 2016!

This account and the readings for this week had me thinking about how Indigenous people are represented at National Parks. Effigy Mounds is a sacred place to the 20 Americans tribes that are associated with the site, yet the park is run by the government rather than returned to the tribes. Other parks may not be sacred sites, but still tell stories of Indigenous tribes (or perhaps leave this history out). Is there a “correct” way for the NPS to depict native cultures? Should they hire Indigenous rangers as stewards and guides? Should the land be returned to the tribes? This is a fraught issue, but perhaps a good case study to think about cultural appropriation in government collections in contrast to private museum collections.


Misappropriating Pain

Susan Scafidi in “Misappropriation and the Destruction of Value(s)” explains that beyond its obvious exploitative nature, misappropriation “can [also] … impoverish the cultural development of the source community itself” (105). The example she provides is a legal case in New Mexico in which a local newspaper flew  over a Pueblo religious ceremony, interrupting the ceremonial dance, to take pictures, and then misrepresented the event as a pow-wow (104-106). She writes, based on a comment from one of the dancers, “[t]he group may ask itself, ‘Why bother to unite in dance (or song, prayer, procession, etc.) if we will only be interrupted and put on display?’” (104-105). In this case, misappropriation may have caused the group to feel that this meaningful, metaphysical ceremony had lost some of its significance and potency.

Scafidi’s characterization of misappropriation reminded me of an article I read earlier today on the New York Times, which prompted me to think that it is also possible to misappropriate pain and trauma. Titled “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests,” the article discusses the controversy surrounding white artist’s, Dana Schutz, painting of the open-coffin photographs of Emmett Till. Black artists, among others, have protested against a white woman painting such a painful loss and the racist hatred it represented for the larger black community. The article quotes Hannah Black, a British-born black artist, who wrote on Facebook: “‘The subject matter is not Schutz’s…White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’” This article left me with the following questions: Does a white artist have the right to capture a painful trauma that ‘belongs’ to the black community? Can she do the trauma justice in her art? Meaning, if Schutz cannot identify with the pain of Till’s murder, can her painting authentically reflect the extent of trauma? Or is she misappropriating this pain and thereby undermining its depth and gravitas?  Later in the article, Schutz is quoted stating: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother… My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” Does this change anything?

Cultural Appropriation at the Biennial

Cultural appropriation has been particularly on my mind this week in light of the inappropriate inclusion of a painting by Dana Schutz in the Whitney Biennial. The painting, Open Casket, depicts the corpse of Emmett Till. The selection of this subject matter by a white artist signals a disregard for the legacy of violence that has historically been (and continues to be) directed against Black people in the United States and abroad. It demonstrates a lack of judgment and sensitivity on the part of the artist. As Hrag Vartanian wrote in Hyperallergic, “The image is particularly troubling because a white woman’s fictions caused the murder of the young man, and now a white female artist has mined a photograph of his death for ostensible commentary, which in reality does little to illuminate much of anything.” The ensuing request for the removal of the painting, written by artist Hannah Black, and the protests in response to this offensive painting are apt.

While Schutz created the painting, curators selected it for display. I think the selection of this painting was a misstep on the part of the two curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, who otherwise seem to put together an overall remarkable, politically engaged exhibition. Curators have a responsibility to select and position artwork in such a way that it stimulates thought and emotion; I would also argue that they are obligated to be empathetic, too.

Works Cited

“Artists and Critics Demand Whitney Biennial Remove Painting in Open Letter.” Artforum, 21 March 2017, Accessed 21 March 2017.

Vartanian, Hrag. “The Violence of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.” Hyperallergic, 21 March 2017,  Accessed 21 March 2017.

On Cultural Patrimony

This week’s readings touched on the various facets of cultural appropriation, examining the definition and interpretation of the concept and that of culture, locating common themes, exploring diversity in these fields, discussing outsider misappropriation and misappropriation, as well as cultural patrimony.

I am particularly interested in the topic on cultural patrimony. There is a heated debate since 1990s over the ownership of cultural property, mostly between the schools of cultural nationalist and cultural internationalist. While the former believes that a nation’s cultural property belongs within the borders of the nation where it was created, the later argues that human beings have a common heritage and that cultural property is of interest to everyone where ever it is located. I have a mixed feeling every time I visited the Metropolitan Museum or museums alike that hold large collections of Chinese cultural/art treasure, which were never seen and more valuable/precious than those in the National Museum of China. One the one hand, I wish some of these cultural relics (and other looted antiquities) could be returned to China via restitution, donation, auction or whichever means available; on the other hand, I feel relieved and fortunate that these cultural objects were preserved, not damaged by the Chinese civil war, the Japanese invasion and cultural revolution, and my generation can still have access to these cultural heritage, even though they are out of the home land. I wonder what can be done to bridge the divide between nationalism and internationalism regarding cultural property.

There is an interesting article published in 2009 entitled “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums” which may help us understand cultural politics and the return of looted antiquities. It reveals that China’s campaign to reclaim relics plundered by foreign/western powers during the period between 1842 and 1945, is actually fueled by national pride and its targeted audiences are those back home, aiming at arousing nationalist sentiment. For those of you who are interested, the link is as below:

get out of here CAPITALISM you’re not wanted

I thought it was really interesting that both chapters we read from Introduction to Cultural Appropriation refer to culture as a products, a possession of one group of people that can be stolen in some way by another. It embeds the discussion of cultural appropriation into a capitalist context that certainly works for some cases (ie the jazz musician situation) but I think unduly complicates others.

Of course, this kind of ownership-centric rhetoric successfully explains the detriment of cultural appropriation to an audience who is perhaps myopically embedded in economic and legal concerns over monetary value and who owns what. However, culture aside, copy write and Fair Use laws that only focus on one’s legal ability to demarcate “creative capital” and defend it against unauthorized use are still pretty shaky. According to the Fair Use Act, you are legally permitted to copy copyrighted material for a “transformative” purposes (to comment on, criticize, or parody) without permission from the copyright owner. However, the enforcement of this law is willy-nilly at best and often favors those who can muster the most experienced and expensive legal team.

This is all to say that in many of the cases of cultural appropriation we read about, the issue centers on the defacement of something culturally sacred—not loss of monetary value. Some party might be making money from cultural appropriation but the main issue is that something sacred was defaced in the process. Cultural appropriation/defamation/hybridity in these texts seems to me like an issue more embedded in empathy, being able to respect and learn about a difference that you may not totally understand, than an economic issue. In some cases, there may be an economic element that adds insult to injury, but I’m still not sold about referring to culture as a product with capitalistic ownership.

Are Objects Ever Enough?

After reading Clifford, I am thinking back to our conversation about the role of dialogue and “voice” in the presentation of cultures. Our readings last week problematized the primacy of visuality in museums and other institutions representing “culture.” Clifford’s essay on “Museums as Contact Zones” reinforces the shortcomings of objects as cultural ambassadors.

Clifford observes that when Tlingit guests came to the Portland Art Museum, they interacted with museum objects through memory and performance. The objects themselves did not represent Tlingit culture, the objects instead served as prompts to oral histories and other modes of telling. He suggests throughout the essay that interpretation gives objects meaning, offering examples like the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, wherein the people featured became “practicing artists” rather than “specimens on display” through their active creation of the site. (196) Clifford concludes the article by proposing that museums working to reckon with histories of conquest and cultural appropriation aim for co-curation rather than consultation with people whose artifacts the museum houses.

The bigger question this all raises for me is whether it is ever possible to ethically represent a culture through material culture alone. Clifford writes that when legacies of colonialism and other “asymmetrical” power relationships shape museum collections, the objects “could never be entirely possessed by the museum.” (194) Without human interlocuters, are objects ever enough?