Filmmaker Justinian Jampol Talks New Natural History Museum Exhibit, 'Becoming L.A.'

Natural History Museum's "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit
Natural History Museum's "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit
 Ryan Miller / Capture Imaging

As part of a new Hollywood Reporter  series of conversations with art and entertainment industry figures taking place in museum exhibitions around Los Angeles, THR joined Justinian Jampol, filmmaker and founder-director of the Wende Museum, for a walk through the new permanent installation "Becoming Los Angeles" at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Blvd.).

The exhibition covers life in the greater L.A. area since the 1700s and the development of the missions. It takes great advantage of the encyclopedic capacity of a natural history museum, presenting everything from a stuffed grizzly bear and early rifles to an extraordinary turn-of-the-century model of downtown and relics from the early days of Hollywood.

Following are excerpts from a conversation that ranged from issues of museum politics and exhibition design to the potential sex appeal of sprinklers. The Wende (5741 Buckingham Parkway, Culver City) is a museum documenting the history and artifacts of the Cold War. Jampol produced his first feature documentary with Mark and Gabrielle Hayes, One Germany: The Other Side of the Wall, a film about German reunification, in 2010. His upcoming projects include Soviet Jews in the City of Angels, about Soviet Jews who found their way out of the USSR to begin a new life in L.A., and Collecting Fragments, which follows the Wende Museum’s acquisition team as it explores abandoned bunkers and bases -- and their contents -- left behind following the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

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What do you enjoy about the Natural History Museum?

I love this place because it’s a museum of a museum -- they can’t touch the dioramas in the main hall, because that entire section is an historic monument. They used to get kind of knocked for it , because they can’t really change their main exhibit. But it has all come around -- people are interested in how they used to present things. That’s part of the story.

The last time I was here was with my 13-year-old nephew and niece. Have you seen the dinosaur? The guy who dresses up in the dinosaur costume – the kids are deathly afraid of that thing.

So you are a native Angeleno.  Do you feel like the exception being from here, where everyone seems to be from somewhere else?

Yes, but in a weird way though, being from somewhere else is being an Angeleno. I mean, we’re all mutts. And we’re all mutts in different ways. You can define that in racial or ethnic terms, or you can also expand that to include geographic mutts – people that are from different places.  And I think that is one of the really great things about L.A.  It doesn’t privilege people who are from here. It is a very egalitarian part of being in L.A. and from L.A. It’s not a defined sort of condition. It’s even difficult to try and define where L.A. starts and ends.

So, in an art museum, people see art for art’s sake; they don’t even question it. But with a history museum, people do question it. What it usually comes down to is that people see cultural/historical museums as part of the democratic process. And that having cultural/historical museums makes us better citizens. But this is really interesting and it has far-flung impact, because now what it means is that if you are on the curatorial staff, how do you make a better citizen. I mean, not in the political sense that they want to convert you to having a particular perspective, but in their view how are you going to come out of this as a better person. Which is a little different than the aims of an art museum. And because of that, the narratives are so reflective of our political/cultural zeitgeist. Cultural/historical museums have more to do with the present than they do with the past.

I think the telling of stories through things is a very effective tool. It always has been. I think it does allow for different perspectives. You see a sword, and for some kids it’s going to be a weapon from a movie they saw. Other people will appreciate it on a design level.

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Does it strike you that the exhibit is pretty spare? It’s not overbearing in the amount of objects or information.

Oh no, it’s definitely spare. You know, I feel like in this case, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The reason I say that is because space defines significance in so many ways. And that means if you put all of this disparate stuff together in a case, your mind would immediately go to thoughts of flea markets, of junk, garages and attics. And nobody wants to be what the Smithsonian was condemned as being -- like America’s attic. That there was just a bunch of …  Lincoln’s hat and Mark Twain’s pipe, all kind of stuck in together. And nobody wants to be that. So in a way, giving it space and lighting gives it significance. And I do think that this was probably thought through in terms of that. But having black walls with light spots on things does make them seem more significant.

Look at this (two hexagonal cases with antique rifles facing away from one another). This reminds me of Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaners. It’s a really complicated, possibly overcomplicated way to display these two guns. Do you think that was the thinking there -- that you can’t just have a wall of guns? You are constantly competing with a kid's ability to be drawn to something.

And the aesthetic of it is quite artistic. There is no practical point for it to be like this. The reaction to that sort of competition has been for so many museums to do this video/digital/multimedia kind of thing. But they’re always going to lose that fight. Because your interactive module at the museum is never going to be able to compete with the array of digital interactive media in people’s lives. I actually like the fact that they play that down here. I’m not against the use of multimedia in the museum. But I think there was a time where it was like the wave of the future and everything was touch screens, stuff like that. I like to see an installation like these guns there – that’s a cool sculpture.

Do you feel like you are more interested in the history of this place than many of your contemporaries who are from here?

You know, yes and no. I think again we are all victim to privileging our own experiences. So nostalgia for instance, we are victims of it. But in a way, I don’t think this exhibit is for people who are from here. And not only this exhibit per se, but just the idea of an exhibit about L.A. in general. Because L.A. is aspirational, and what I mean by that is that people come here to become something and to belong to whatever myth – and I won’t say there is one myth – but their individual ideal or myth that brings them here. Whether it’s music or film or the visual arts or none of them. In the museum world, I hired someone moving to L.A. to pursue a museum career. And that is just as much a valid part of the L.A. experience. I would even say that those people that move to L.A. for L.A. are more L.A. than people that I know who are from L.A.

And you talk to people from L.A., and they feel the same way. We all kind of know we have it good, so we don’t need to boast. And instead we make films like Crash and talk about how awful it is. But we live here and we love it. It doesn’t feel like the people that made that movie are violating some code, as they would if they did that in some other city. In fact, that is ‘so L.A.’ – you know what I mean? That is a part of what being here is about.

And there is something to be said about the fact that we are all kind of on the margins here in L.A. And I embrace that – I love that about L.A. We are all in the minority – in the true sense. And I’ve always felt that being on the margins gives you a sensibility that people who live in homogenous cultures just don’t have.  And it also gives you a comfort with being different. So we’re all mutts and we’re all in the margins. What binds us together are larger, more philosophical things. And we need that. People come here to reinvent themselves. And I think people who are here, stay here to reinvent themselves. I feel like if I explain to people what I do outside of L.A., there is something weird about it, but I don’t feel that way here. I feel like there is a certain acceptance – no matter what it is – a kind of a shared experience of trying to start and do something.

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So, as a historian, what is sexy about history to you?

I think sexy is something inspirational and something that provokes a physical as much as an emotional response. I mean that’s what sex appeal is -- it's your neurons firing in a particular way. And I know something to me is sexy because it makes my heart beat fast -- because I’m excited about something.  And the thing is, I find that being excited about something means that something about it is new to me that is different -- that tests me. And going back to this exhibit, things that are nostalgic are not sexy -- they’re more about your own indulgences than something outside yourself. Sex appeal is about something being introduced to you that you find exciting. So it can’t be that familiar. And I like the unfamiliarity of it -- even when you see something familiar I try to make it unfamiliar to make it exciting or enticing.

To shift your paradigm …

Yeah. And I think something that is sexy is finding something that contrasts to what you think, what you believe or what you know. When we see something that’s sexy, it’s because it’s something different and it’s new. In a museum-like way it is relatable. The director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who did The Lives of Others, said to me [after visiting the Wende Museum] that he never looked at anything East German as much as he did when it sat next to a palm tree. It created some sexiness -- creating that contrast, you know.

So here we are approaching the end of the exhibit -- this seems to represent the "contemporary SoCal" design and lifestyle element. There’s almost as much stuff here relating to the war and these planes as there is to all of Hollywood.

I like this, but it is so weird. Why do you have a hubcap and a piece of steel and three sprinklers, an electric guitar, a gas can, and a skateboard and an iPhone?

And look at the placement of the iPhone just tucked quietly in there. In many ways, that object is more important in the impact of people’s lives than anything else in this show. And it’s just kind of stuck there.

But the relationships are fascinating. In a way, this is like a postmodern museum. No more structure, no more connections. You make your own.

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And there is no hierarchy. They’re not saying that that is more important than that.

In fact, more important are the sprinklers, because there are three of them. And a catalytic converter. That is really amazing. And it's funny that people pay more attention to that. I love, too, the back of this solar panel. I love seeing the back of stuff -- to see how it is made. It seems to me that one of the reasons why it looks like this is because you are cramming the history of the city into 14,000 square feet. Which is not much. So that was film, this was defense, and this is everything after -- pop culture, science, etc. And so I think it’s kind of jammed together in a kind of weird way. But it does something that I like, which is that I feel like it prevents nostalgia. This is what I really assumed this thing would be. I assumed it was going to be one of two ways – which is the booster story – the great planners of L.A. This I didn’t really expect, because that’s the traditional way to go. There was the museum of the 1990s, which was all about the kind of Howard Zinn’s idea of America -- the Indians were oppressed, etc. And I think that loses its power, because it’s so politically charged. But what I see now is that there is a lot of interpretation here that is up in the air. And like you said, the murder scene could have easily been such a pandering, film-noir thing.  In the film section, they could have done something oozing with nostalgia – all the films you remember as a kid. And I think that nostalgia is the most perverse sense of memory, or the most perverse by-product of memory. Nostalgia does all kinds of awful things. And I think museums in a certain sense can’t help it because they know that it is an emotional reaction. They could have really shown things like a Rubik’s Cube and the scene from Beverly Hills Cop, and they could have easily made this a pop culture.

And this whole end could have been very Gidget, beach blanket bingo…

Yes, and they could have done something on Elvis and pop stars and they could have made this emotional feel-good nostalgia. Which is the go-to thing for museums, because they know they are going to get a reaction. In reality, that is a very poor, terrible thing for museums to be doing. And, in fact, the one concern that I had coming here was that I was preparing myself to fight nostalgia because I am a victim of it, too. I don’t feel nostalgic about the old stuff at all, but I was preparing myself to feel nostalgic about the stuff from the '80s and '90s -- the toys I played with. I think that is a very base sense of self, and I think nostalgia is a really unfortunate feeling of humanity. Because it is very perverse -- it makes you feel like you are somehow privileged and you have a center position about how cool and special this is, where anyone from the outside doesn’t have that same emotional tie. They’re looking at it from a more objective point of view. Really there is nothing here to feel nostalgic about. You can’t be nostalgic about a sprinkler, a catalytic converter. We still live with the iPhone now, the airplane engine. I feel like I’m observing materials from a city that is not mine. And I don’t feel connected, and I think that is a good thing. There is a feeling like somehow you have to be in a place to know it, to understand it. But I don’t feel that way at all. It’s more about you than it is about the place.

If you could capture your personal history of this city, what would it look like? What medium, what style?

That’s really kind of an interesting question. I mean, in a way it's slightly reflective of this exhibit in that it’s unfamiliar and I think that I am thankful that I don’t live in a place that is familiar to me that never stops surprising. I think that I love that more about L.A. than anything else. That there is a sense of surprise, and I think that there are so many ways to do an exhibit that ticks all the boxes in terms of what people expect out of a historical museum, and I’m not saying that‘s always wrong. But I think L.A. is one of the few places in the world where that would be totally wrong. L.A. is so a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Making it so multilayered and complex and inviting of totally different perspectives and interpretations is more L.A. than any kind of approach and aim that I can think of. If you come out of the exhibit with more answers than questions, you’ve done something wrong. Because that just means that you haven’t gotten the essence of what this place is about. It’s a land of question marks. And I think that question marks enable the possibilities for creating your own route and your own way. And that kind of embracing of the different is why so many people come here that don’t fit in from where they are. And I think that goes back to L.A. as the land of the other, of the marginal. So common history is impossible, and I think that’s its strength rather than its weakness.

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