A Museum of Geography, What?

Los Angeles’s Hollywood Bowl Overlook (Beau Rogers via Compfight)

On October 21, 2016, the Los Angeles Museum of Geography opened its first exhibition, “The Homeless Amongst Us,” in its temporary home at 2426 SET in the West Adams district of L.A. The exhibit, designed by John May and Zeina Koreitem of Millions Architecture, consists of three videotaped interviews with formerly homeless people projected onto the sides of levitating tents and a slide show of photographs of a homeless encampment, all of it undergirded by a haunting synthesizer score composed by former Mothers of Invention keyboard player, Don Preston. The exhibition intends to provoke discussion and incite thought about the condition of the homeless in this city.

That’s all very fine and good, and perhaps even noble and praiseworthy, but what is this about a museum of geography? Who ever heard of such a thing? What could it consist of? What possible void does it fill?

First, as we all know, there is no geography without history and no history without geography. This means that every museum of history that has ever graced the Earth, from the most venerable to the most humble, is also a geography museum. Otherwise, none of that history would have a place to take place in. So, by the route of default, there have been scores of geography museums without the benefit of naming rights. Next, as geography, in its broadest sense, is the study of that which is on the Earth, there is certainly plenty of allowance for bestowing upon the discipline the privilege of having its own museums. Certainly the possible subject matters are exceedingly ample, from the changing demographics of the urban mileau to the current state of global warming to economic change in Southeast Asia to the inevitable environmental and economic degradations of neoliberalism.

In Los Angeles, there are two specific reasons for opening a museum of geography. First, there is no history museum here. Though the snide may claim that’s because there is no history in the City of the Angels, I would suggest they dig a little deeper into the archive and study the record. Though this is a relatively young city, its history is rich and deeply textured. The very layout of the city reflects this, with the downtown core based on the Plan of the Indies, imposed by the Spanish during their rule, and the remainder of the city based on the Jeffersonian grid, imposed after the “Americans” took power. Still, despite this, there is no history museum, which leaves a yawning gap in the cultural landscape of the city, as most cities and many towns do have historical museums. So there is a void here that needs to be filled.

Secondly, Los Angeles, being a center of innovation and a hub of all that is new, novel, and even kooky, is the perfect city in the world to have its own geography museum. L.A. has been the birthplace, among others, of the Self Realization Fellowship and the Ham and Eggs movement, as well as the more infamous Church of Scientology and the International Church of the FourSquare Gospel, so why not a museum of geography? We also have a museum dedicated to Jurassic technology and a Death Museum, as well as the more famous but just as singular CityWalk and Knott’s Berry Farm: the region being a site of many wonders, one more wonder won’t seem all that weird.

Yet the Los Angeles Museum of Geography isn’t dedicated to the furtherance of kookiness. Its ambit is large, its range vast, its intentions serious. Though we debuted with an exhibit on the homeless and have another coming up on gentrification, certainly a pressing topic in this city, we are not confining ourselves to issue-oriented exhibitions. Our next show, for instance, will focus on everyday Los Angeles and will consist of a collection of ephemera reflecting the quotidian reality of the city. Bus passes and grocery store receipts will be featured as well as a selection of paintings and photographs reflecting the everyday nature of L.A. In the future, we will mount exhibitions detailing the various diasporas of ethnic groups and races who ended up planting their roots in Los Angeles, from Koreans to Mexicans to African-Americans to Iranians to Thais to Armenians. L.A. is a polyglot city, with more than 125 languages spoken by the students of Hollywood High School and a stunning array of ethnic and racial enclaves including a Thai Town, a Little Tokyo, a Koreatown, a Little Cambodia, a Chinatown, a Little Armenia, a Tehranangeles, a Little Bangladesh, a Little Ethiopia, and a Historic Filipinotown, not to mention the Crenshaw District, one of the largest African-American urban neighborhoods in the United States, and East L.A. and Boyle Heights, two of the largest concentrations of Mexican-Americans in the country. A series of exhibits will highlight these and other populations who have settled here.

However, we won’t ignore physical geography. The museum will host a show on earthquakes, certainly a topical subject in Los Angeles, and another on the subject of water in Los Angeles, an issue fraught with drama in this region, as anyone who has ever seen the film Chinatown will testify to. We will also focus on the economic geography of the region, with exhibitions on the motion picture business (AKA The Industry) and another on the former glory days of L.A.’s industrial past, when steel plants and car factories dotted the landscape of Southeast Los Angeles.

The museum also hopes to be an educational resource center for the community, offering free cultural geography and GIS courses to underserved K-12 students. It will also host conferences, colloquiums, and lectures about the geo-history of the region, and will present a series of films which use L.A. as its setting, from noir classic Double Indemnity to Oscar-winner Crash to academic favorite Blade Runner to the drama-documentary Exiles to cult film The Big Lebowski. A literary series featuring Los Angeles fiction will also be mounted, including tributes to If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, among others.

There is no reason why geography cannot take a central position in the cultural ambience of any big city. Pressing social issues are in our ambit, from the aforementioned homelessness and gentrification to economic dislocation and demographic transformations. There are anthropological museums, archeological museums, and of course history museums, not to mention sports museums, musical instrument museums and farm implement museums; I see no reason why there shouldn’t be geographical museums.

However, there is one obstacle and it may be an overwhelming one. It requires that geographers leave the academic grove, at least on a part-time basis, and engage with the wider community. This not only requires considerable time, often without immediate remuneration, but may also require a more generalized approach to the discipline, one that allows folks other than academics into the fold. A style is needed that is suited to a broad swath of the public, one that doesn’t dumb down complex ideas yet is accessible to all and sundry, from garage mechanics to nuclear physicists. A capacity to navigate through institutional terrain while simultaneously performing banal tasks, such as raising money and keeping to a budget, are also required. Many academics will throw up their hands at such a prospect: isn’t there enough bureaucratic balderdash in a typical geography department without ranging into the civic mileau and opening a damn museum?

That is a sentiment I readily understand, as I am facing many of these tedious mundane tasks as I launch the Los Angeles Museum of Geography. However, the opportunity of placing geography where it belongs – right in the center of things, in my estimation – is too tempting to bypass. So the next time you’re in L.A., look us up. Perhaps we’ll be exhibiting our upcoming show on the haunted geographies of L.A. or one on civic unrest in the city, certainly a subject writhing with promise, or the show on food in L.A. A geography museum does make sense as it can provide a wonderful avenue for geographers to present their ideas and research to an audience. May there be a thousand such museums in a thousand cities, from London to Dakar and Shanghai to Bogotá.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0019


Justice and Place

In this forum and with this audience I doubt that it will be at all controversial to state that justice and place are intimately connected. After all, geographers are typically quite aware of such relationships. Or at least one hopes that they are typically quite aware of this. The dynamics between geography and justice is readily apparent in a wide array of situations, from the segregation policies of the old American South to the occupation policies of Israel vis-à-vis Palestine to the variance in death penalty laws among the various states in America. What is amazing, though, is how often issues of justice and place appear in the news as well as in cultural products and how just as often they are not recognized as such by the majority of people or, perhaps, even by the majority of geographers. My best supposition of why this is so is that geographical connections become obscure and opaque as readers and viewers pay attention to what may seem like more immediate factors, such as the glaring inequities of injustice or the seemingly random enactment and enforcement of laws. However, a simple analysis of a small sample of items will demonstrate that the link between geography and justice is extremely dynamic and must be taken into account for even a superficial understanding of most events.

For example, if we open up the New York Times of December 19 2014 to page 20, we will find three separate stories that show completely different yet equally taut relationships between geography and justice. The first story is titled “2 Neighbors of Colorado Sue over Marijuana Laws.” Upon perusing this article, we discover that the States of Nebraska and Oklahoma are suing the State of Colorado, which recently passed a law legalizing marijuana. Nebraska and Oklahoma are basing their cases on a worry that the pestilence of pot will spill over their borders and cause havoc in their territories. Here, we obviously have an issue with a geographical turn to it, for if there were no states and no borders between them, then this would not be an issue at all and, thus, not a story. But it seems to me that most readers will go through this story without realizing that the connection between geography and justice is the prime element in this article, as that link is so obvious that it is masked, hiding in plain sight, as it were.

The second story is titled “Contesting Traffic Fines, Missouri Sues 13 Suburbs.” Here, we have the attorney general of the State of Missouri suing thirteen St. Louis suburbs for allegedly profiteering off of minorities and the poor by overzealous enforcement of parking fines and traffic violations. So instead of co-equal entities such as states going to battle, as in the first story, we have here a state turning its jurisdictional focus on smaller entities, municipalities within that state. Again, a clear geographical focus is paramount in this case, as it is only through the organization of the states and municipalities and their court systems along geographical lines that such a suit could even be filed. But, once again, geography as such is lost here as attention is shifted to the alleged injustices which the governments of the various St. Louis municipalities perpetrated upon their citizens.

The final story on page 20 of the December 19 edition of the New York Times, “Shooting Spurs Debates Over Race and Guns In a Gingerbread Town,” concerns a Muslim woman, Mary Araim, who had been sworn in as a U.S. citizen just days before she was shot and killed in the German-themed tourist town of Helen in White County, Georgia, by one Glenn Lampien. Here the geographical locus is a bit more complicated. First, we have a Georgia town which , for touristic purposes, presents itself as a simulacrum of a German village replete with such establishments as the Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen, Lindenhaus Imports, and the Old Bavarian Inn. Ms. Araim, a native of Iraq, where she had been a teacher and an assistant principal, had moved to the United States and settled in Houston. She was in Georgia to visit relatives in nearby Lawrenceville and was wearing a headscarf when she was walking down the streets of Helen where she was killed. Lampien of Jasper, Georgia, was in Helen seemingly to become intoxicated. He had been drinking in a local bar, King Ludwig’s Biergarten, before he ducked out on the bill and then allegedly shot and killed Ms. Araim. According to the article, Lampien contends that he shot his gun accidentally and that in no way did he target Ms. Araim because she was Muslim and wearing a headscarf. So perhaps here we could draw lines of destiny and fate between Iraq, Texas, and Georgia to delineate the lineaments of geography in this case. The extra factor of the German touristic layer adds a surreal plane to the mix, giving the tragic death of Ms. Araim a bizarre quality. We could also add in the fact that Ms. Araim was more liable to be shot in the United States than in almost any other country, including perhaps even Iraq, given our penchant for weapons and our lax laws regarding the purchase of ammunition and guns, and especially in states such as Georgia, which passed a law in March allowing gun owners to carry their weapons in bars, restaurants, churches, schools, and restaurants.

A quick look at a selection of classic plays and movies also yields a sampling of cultural documents reflecting a tight connection between geography and ethics. For instance, Shakespeare’s King Lear hinges on the division of Lear’s kingdom into three equal parts which he bequeaths to his three daughters. The geographical backdrop of the play is quite explicit as in Act One, Scene One, Lear declaims to his children:

Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom; and `tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

Obviously geographical in nature, this passage even refers to the paramount technical instrument of geography, a map. The consequences of Lear’s recklessly fateful decision ends up casting Lear and his youngest daughter, Cordelia, against his other two children, Goneril and Regan, in a pitched battle over territory, authority, and familial devotion or the lack thereof. Yet here as well, the salience of geographical concerns gets lost amidst what seem to be more significant psychological and metaphysical issues. Lear tips towards madness and plumbs the depths of the geography of the Inferno: “Beneath is all the fiends. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie fie! pah, pah!” But the linchpin and the catalyst of the tragedy is that geographical parsing out of his kingdom to his daughters, the division of territory leading to all that ensues in Shakespeare’s drama.

One of Hollywood’s most celebrated classics, A Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, is also centered on quite obvious geographical concerns. In this rather smaltzy yet still powerful drama, George Bailey, played by the always earnest James Stewart, struggles to keep his hometown of Bedford Falls and his housing development from falling into the evils clutches of Henry Potter, played by a very creepy Lionel Barrymore. The story is all geography through and through, with opposite versions of the town, Bailey’s idyllic Bedford Hills versus Potter’s satanic Pottersville, set against one another, the former a blissful vision of an almost communal-like Americana suburb, the latter reeking with every form of degeneracy and sin. Of course, this being a Hollywood picture, Bailey wins out in the end but not before receiving a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from his guardian angel, Clarence, thus tying Bailey into the great mother of American rivers and therefore connecting the film to a geography (and a history) of a more expansive kind.

These examples of the importance of geography in cultural products are not singular: there are scores of others which could just as easily prove the point. For instance, Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard concerns the estate of a family of aristocrats turned over to member of the noveau riche, while Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People focuses on the polluted waters of a spa. Or consider the Oscar winners for best picture in the last two years. In 2013, the Oscar for best picture went to 12 Years A Slave while in 2012 Argo received the nod. Both movies are framed by a strong geographical context, with the former set in the South when the mode of production of slavery was dividing the United States in two and the latter having much to do with borders, nation-states, and attempts to transcend those borders through subterfuge and cunning.

My point here, though, is not to insert geography into various things, as if draping our discipline about the necks of this or that entity, but to demonstrate that geography is pervasive, especially in terms of the realms of justice and ethics. Where you are makes a great difference, in fact as well as in fiction. That we as geographers should be especially aware of this seems to be the least we can demand of ourselves.

—Rob Sullivan