Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon I had the privilege of giving a presentation about the Homestead at the installation of new officers for the Temple City Historical Society. The Homestead and the Society have worked together for many years to share the common interest of Walter P. Temple’s founding, in 1923, of Temple City and it’s always a pleasure going there to talk about history relating to the family and the town.
The program included presentations to the historical society from new Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger and then the swearing-in of new society officers by Temple City council member Tom Chavez. My talk followed and the focus, based on a request from incoming society president Lynne Best, was to talk about the Homestead’s future in light of my becoming director last July. I’d given the same basic presentation to a local service club a few months ago.
Here is a brief summary of what I discussed. After giving a brief introduction to the museum, I talked about our purpose statement, especially the active portion that is the first part of the succinct mission: Creative advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles. We want people to be excited and energized by what they can learn about our regional history and then go out and let others know.
I covered some of the programs we offer, mentioning that people want to do more through participatory learning and that we believe this is the best path to get advocates. I also devoted some time to talking about our growing diverse collection of historic artifacts and how these can be tools for participatory learning.
There was some mention of how we make use of our staff’s talents in preserving and restoring historical resources, something amply demonstrated a couple of years ago with the Temple City Historical Society when my colleague Melanie Tran worked on stabilizing and repairing some historic maps from the Society’s collection.
In looking to the future, I mentioned a five-point strategy that we are looking at to improve how we work with the public, adapted from an visitor-centered exhibit concept I learned about years ago at a workshop at the Getty in Los Angeles. It advocated a cumulative set of criteria from comfort to competence to engagement to meaningfulness and, finally, to satisfaction (I understand one of these was removed in a later version of the concept, but I like the five).
The idea is that, if visitors are not first comfortable in their environment, they can’t successfully move on to feeling competent in their understanding of the information they receive. From there, they lack engagement, the finding of meaning and the feeling of satisfaction. My hope is that the Homestead can implement this concept in some way when it comes to its programs.
We also want to continue to add to our artifact collection of nearly 30,000 pieces so that objects from the past help visitors make connections to the past and then relate that to current conditions and future possibilities. We have to recognize, moreover, that the digital domain becomes more important as part of the process of engagement, whether on or off site.
I also gave some examples of significant upcoming anniversaries that are receiving our attention as ways to galvanize interest with the public. This includes this year’s centennial of America’s entry in World War One, 2019’s centennial of Prohibition, and 2o20’s of women’s right to vote in federal elections. I also pointed out that Temple City’s centennial is only six years away and 2023 will come faster than many of us realize!
Some attention was also given to continuing to think about how visitors will access the Homestead site and how we have to reach out to people wherever they are. Additionally, ethnic demographics, technology among younger people, and keeping a pulse on what the interests, needs and wants of visitors are were brought up. Finally, the desire and need for collaboration with such groups as the Society was also highlighted.
I made a point of noting that, as recipients of public funds through the City of Industry, which very generously fully funds the museum, we have an obligation to make every effort to engage with the public in ways that promote that advocacy inherent in our purpose statement. That can and should also happen with collaboration and Temple City is an obvious place to continue with common projects.
I was also sure to note that, in the late 1920s, a promotional pamphlet for Temple City explicitly stated that the town (developed by Walter Temple, who was part-Latino) was for whites only. Yet, from the 1980s onward, the demographics of Temple City, as with many other areas of greater Los Angeles, shifted dramatically in ethnic composition.
While the Homestead works with an interpretive time frame of 1830 to 1930, it is essential that we establish linkages between the history of that period and that of our own, so that we remain relevant–something any historical organization needs to bear in mind as generational, demographic and technological change accelerates. Otherwise, it will be tough to survive without adapting to that change.
One cool footnote was that my presentation included a snapshot of an “Our Gang” (“Little Rascals”) film shoot in downtown Los Angeles (the photo was highlighted here in a recent post) and it turned out that Supervisor Barger had a staff member present whose father was one of the child actors in over two dozen “Our Gang” comedies in the later 1930s. She told me the family donated his memorabilia (he played “Junior”, a brother of Darla) to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Herrick Library.