La Placita Olvera and the streets around it are rich with history, but oftentimes this history might not be apparent to the visitors who flock to the area looking for authentic Mexican restaurants or a unique shopping experience.
Thankfully, there exists a year-old museum that casts light on the formation of Los Angeles and the history of Mexican people in the city — and does so free of charge.
Tucked in a corner next to La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Ángeles lies LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum dedicated to chronicling the history of Mexicans and the rise of Chicanos in Los Angeles. Through artifacts, videos, interactive portions and creative displays, the museum takes visitors on a journey from the Spanish invasion of California to current-day issues relating to Mexican- and Hispanic-American people.
The museum connects its historical content with present-day visitors by dedicating its first introductory segment, L.A. Today: We Are the Future, to Los Angeles and its Hispanic and Latino inhabitants. The room contains photographs and video clips of Hispanic and Latino people of different backgrounds tied together by Los Angeles. The three floors of the museum focus not only on exposing visitors to Mexico’s past and the struggles of Hispanic and Latino people in general, but also lend these events a sense of importance in the present day.
The first floor focuses on the history of the Spanish settlement of California. Visitors can read about the historical timeline with artifacts including wardrobe, guns and tools. The exhibit also highlights the shaping of California with a video portion describing street history and a giant creation in the shape of the state with a video projected onto its surface.
From the onset, the museum uses creative curatorial techniques to keep visitors engaged. The museum uses quotes, photographs, videos, lit displays and more to create an interactive experience — a must for museums that might be dismissed as too stiflingly historical.
After visitors take in facts about Spanish settlers and the formation of the city, the museum explores the decades up until today that led to the formation of Mexican identity in a new society. Through looking at social issues and popular culture of the times, the museum manages to not only shed light on important struggles but also to communicate what the city looked like in past decades.
Again, the museum takes into consideration the vast amount of information and balances this overload with creative set-ups. Covering so many decades proves no easy feat but the layout of the exhibits help echo the overall themes; one section on social struggles, for example, has text and photographs set up behind a fence.
The second floor offers the most aesthetically ambitious part of the museum and focuses on Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles and what it looked like in the 1920s. The floor is an impressively faithful recreation of the street, down to the lampposts. The floor allows visitors to walk through the space, as if they were walking down the street, while also setting up rooms that the visitor can walk into.
Among these lies a room set up to look like a medicine store, one that appears to be a phonograph and record store and another that recreates a photography studio. The record store provides listening samples for visitors to browse.
The studio lets visitors sit in the place of people getting their traditional portraits taken by a very different-looking camera than today’s digital contraptions.
A box to the side provides sitters with everything from gloves to hats to pearls in order to dress up and pose on a small couch in front of a painted backdrop. The second floor also focuses on the history of architecture in the city.
The third floor contains various artworks, including some impressive papier-mâché creations. By the time visitors reach this floor, they will have read about important Mexican social movement figures, sat in front of significant works of art and walked through the city as it lay decades ago.
The museum includes a segment where visitors can sit in a photo-booth-like area and record their thoughts on a variety of topics. Because the museum focuses on the struggles of Mexicans in California, migration and the Spanish settlers, this portion opens itself to all sides; the optional questions suggest that the visitors talk about everything from why their parents came to California to whether they disagree with anything in the museum.
Free of cost and near important cultural locations, the museum proves a location worth exploring regardless of a prospective visitor’s ethnicity and background. Walking through the recreation of Main Street calls to mind that Los Angeles’ inhabitants ultimately have a shared history that can come to light once again as visitors take in L.A.’s past and Hispanic heritage.
Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in English. Her column “Nook & Cranny” ran Mondays.