A New Cultural Center Brings Mexican American Voices to L.A.'s Birthplace

A new museum situated at the site of L.A.'s birthplace uses a series of engaging video walls on a public walkway to draw potential visitors inside.

Somewhere on Los Angeles's Olvera Street, among the 99-cent sombreros and Mexican wrestling masks, is the birthplace of the city. But it takes a lot of looking beyond the tchotchkes and theme park-sized margaritas to find the place where L.A. was founded in 1781. Now a new museum and cultural center, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, helps both tourists and Angelenos discover the history of the city by bringing the stories of Mexican Americans out of the museum and into a public walkway.

From the ranchos that carved up the L.A. basin, to the story of how local migrant workers transformed labor laws, the museum focuses on the Mexican American experience in L.A., which turns out to be a great way to tell the history of the city. While the exhibits are filled with artifacts like century-old clothing, all the pieces are on loan. The only actual items the museum has in its collection are the "Voces Vivas," a series of video vignettes featuring narratives from Mexican Americans. "We don't collect artifacts, we collect stories," says president and CEO Miguel Angel Corzo, of the 55 interviews with people ranging from "gardeners and judges to artists and political activists."


To put the focus on those stories, the museum enlisted Tali Krakowsky and her firm Apologue, who has created immersive environments for places such as Chanel and Victoria's Secret. With creative director Beth Elliott, Krakowsky and her team created walkway screens in a public alley space that both bring the stories out of the museum and draw passersby into the experience.

"People are numb towards media," says Krakowsky of the overwhelming displays that greet visitors to many institutions. Here, the designers attempted to create a "living" experience that evokes the curiosity of the audience. Instead of following a set, linear schedule, the giant screens are programmed to interact dynamically, meaning that the 250 animated images and video clips can combine in myriad ways. Adding more Cesar Chavez on his national holiday is as easy as adjusting a few sliders. The screens even have motion sensors that know when someone's watching and add more in-depth information on the topic at hand. The effect is more like a book than a video wall, says Krakowsky. "We're interested in tech, not in gimmicks."

Sandwiched between these displays are gorgeous interstitial animations featuring monarch butterflies (symbols of migration) and blossoming tropical flowers that seem to grow and bloom across the screens. The graphics, which were programmed by Automata Studios, are inspired by the same Oaxacan patterns in the ironwork on the surrounding fence and feature plants and animals indigenous to Mexico.

"I think this will really change the area. It feels very rich and established," says Krakowsky of the once-empty alley outside the museum, which is housed in two of the city's oldest buildings. Indeed, using these displays to both activate a public space and draw in potential visitors seems to be working. That's especially true at night, when the screens glow like lanterns, and people gravitate to their bright colors and graceful imagery, standing long enough to learn a little slice of Los Angeles history.

Photos by Ron Frankel

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