I’ve got a soft spot for old-fashioned American hotels, with their bright red Exit signs and faded décor. I’m writing this from one, the Milner on South Flower Street, Los Angeles, where I’m staying for a week while attending the 20th Museums and the Web conference.
On the ride in from the airport, my first visit to the West Coast of America, L.A. matched the picture I had in my head. It was flat and sprawling, our bus running along endless stretches of freeway as the suburbs stretched out around us, blurred by morning haze. Everywhere the landscape was punctuated by tall, skinny palm trees.
Looking around for recognisable landmarks, I finally spotted the Hollywood sign up on the hill. Some icons impress despite their familiarity. I remember a couple of years ago in Florence finally seeing Michelangelo’s David for the first time. I had seen endless reproductions, and even full-size casts, but the original was an entirely different experience, beautiful, awesome, and a little overwhelming. The Hollywood sign was the opposite, one of those landmarks so stripped of significance through repetition the original almost seems an anti-climax.
After a shower and a quick nap I hit the streets of downtown, finding the beautiful Central Library, the Broad, and the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The next day I bought a ticket to the LA Philharmonic playing Brahms, and Liszt’s 1st piano concerto, so I look forward to seeing inside this Saturday evening. If it’s anything like the outside it should be impressive.
The following day my run of museums started with the California Science Centre. It’s an amazing place, filled with hundreds of visitors (a lot of them kids) playing with displays, interacting with physics experiments, exploring ecosystems and learning about space. I’m a bit of a fan of space stuff, so seeing the decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour in real life was wonderful.
Particularly fascinating are the tiles on the shuttle’s underside. They have been through such extremes, each one individually designed and shaped to cope with the particular stresses and temperatures experienced at that specific point. I suspect I was one of the few people in the room to get an extra thrill when I discovered they are covered in metadata.
The shuttle was brought in via the streets of Los Angeles. If anyone hasn’t seen the footage, it’s worth watching to see the Endeavour squeezing between trees and buildings, greeted by thousands of people. Though stored in a large hanger at the moment, there are plans to build a custom space so the shuttle can be mounted standing upright, complete with booster rockets and tank as though ready for launch.
For an Australian, the ability of U.S. institutions to undertake such adventurous projects boggles the mind. But then you see the lists of philanthropists. Several institutions had boards up showing donors in the $5,000,000-$9,999,999 range (and many in the ranges underneath). The Museum of Contemporary Art went further, with categories for donors above $10,000,000, and from an earlier campaign a donor listed as ‘$30 million and above’. American philanthropy is an extraordinary characteristic of this strange country, one with visible effects everywhere.
Next door is the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. It’s a beautiful building housing a fairly old-fashioned institution, complete with dramatic dioramas in long, dark, wood-panelled halls and huge rooms of dinosaur bones. Though an enjoyable experience there was little I hadn’t seen before (with one exception which will appear in an upcoming post).
I spent the rest of the day on a pilgrimage of sorts. As someone who studied West Coast art from the 1950s-1970s for my Masters, the Watts Towers are an iconic example of Los Angeles folk-art and were of great interest to some of the assemblage artists who followed. So I took the train out to Watts to see them in real-life, finally ticking off something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.
The following day, apart from checking out some contemporary art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Broad at the conference reception, I spent the day at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.
There were some amazing specimens pulled from the excavation pits over the years, as well as some interesting glimpses behind the scenes. I’ll talk more about that in a future post too.
I don’t feel swept up in Los Angeles like I do when I go to some other cities, including New York (where I’ll be in a couple of weeks), but it’s still a fascinating city, multicultural and almost bilingual in terms of signage and announcements. Most exhibits at the California Science Centre, for example, had labels in English and Spanish; and the sign shown here is from the Metro line I caught back from the Watts Towers.
(It’s interesting to note the racial – or at least cultural – stereotyping too, the blonde guy dressed in blue spotting the dark-haired vandal in street clothes and a backwards cap.)
First impressions are sometimes correct, and Los Angeles really is sprawling, something I discovered when I tried to get to the beach to see the sunset, ended up at a Metro station called Redondo Beach, then walked five kilometres through suburbs to reach the coast. Thankfully I made it in time.
There is extreme wealth, glitz and glam, alongside visible poverty and homelessness. There are many things about America I struggle with, from the endless runs of bad coffee and fast food, to the relentless optimism at the expense of self-deprecation, to the endless coverage of the ridiculously long election primaries and the horrifying policies of Trump and Cruz.
But there are many things I love too. The cultural institutions and collections are often staggering, the levels of philanthropy and its effects extraordinary (leaving aside the disparities in wealth that underpin this system), and there’s something about sitting propped up at the bar receiving full U.S.-style service I always enjoy. Los Angeles may not be somewhere I’d like to spend a lot of time, but it’s a fascinating place to spend a week.