How Are L.A.'s Science and Cultural Institutions Dealing With the "Post-Truth" Era?
Courtesy Aquarium of the Pacific
On a late weekday morning, Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific is abuzz with children. Tiny and energetic, some press against glass as if they want to step inside the strange aquatic world of marine life. Inside the "Vanishing Animals" exhibition, the tykes are so young that their accompanying adults are reading the nearby signs aloud to them. There are lists of endangered animals, including ones native to California, such as the red wolf and Franklin's bumblebee. Further along, placards and a looping video help explain why creatures are disappearing, bringing up issues including humans' reliance on fossil fuels and climate change. But it's not all bad news; there are success stories like the American alligator, whose numbers have increased thanks to environmental protections.
At Aquarium of the Pacific, the focus is not just on the magic of life underwater but also on its fragility. While conservation issues are explained here in terms that the kids can understand, this space isn't solely designed to impact the future electorate. "We can't wait for a 6-year-old to be able to vote," says aquarium president-CEO Dr. Jerry R. Schubel. Educating adults on marine life and conservation is part of the mission, too. With that in mind, the aquarium's adult programming is robust and includes everything from lectures (also available to view online) to its Aquatic Academy classes and volunteer programs.
The aquarium, Schubel says, is "driven by science, driven by facts."
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" the Word of the Year. From the looks of it, "alternative facts" might be a contender for 2017. We're living in an age when partisan politics can, and often do, hold more sway than research that results in fact-based evidence. This makes an institution such as Aquarium of the Pacific crucial to keeping the public informed of the environmental issues that affect our waters. But the need for strong programs dedicated to sharing research doesn't end there. From science to history to art, local institutions stand as a counterweight to the misconceptions and, sometimes, outright false information that seeps into public discourse.
Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum sees between 10,000 and 15,000 students come in for field trips per year. In the back of the ongoing "Common Ground" exhibition, which details the history of Japanese-Americans, there's a book filled with letters from children who have visited the museum. In grade-school scrawl, many express their interest, and sadness, in learning about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It's an established dark part of U.S. history: In 1942, following an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, West Coast residents of Japanese heritage were forced into concentration camps such as Manzanar in California and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Today, whether or not people know about these events depends on a lot of different factors. "People who are very well-educated, with a lot of degrees, may have missed this somehow," says Allyson Nakamoto, director of education at JANM, "but people on the other hand who have a next-door neighbor who is Japanese-American completely know this story."
At JANM, education goes beyond the museum itself; its website includes resources for teachers as well. That's important given that there can be gross misconceptions about these events. "People say, the camps were good for you, it kept you out of trouble. It made you safe because you would have gotten mobbed if you were outside in the real world. It was like, it was for your own good," says Clement Hamani, JANM's art and program director, who curated the forthcoming exhibition "Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066," which we wrote about earlier this week.
He continues, "It doesn't take into account the huge economic losses. The displacement. The way that it would affect individuals' egos or their perceptions of themselves of being the enemy and being forced to liquidate all of your personal belongings in a matter of weeks to go to some godforsaken place in the desert that was hastily built and not a very pleasant place."
Danielle Klebanow/courtesy the Autry
In the art world, truth and legend can intertwine, and, according to the Autry's president-CEO, Rick West, that's particularly the case when the subject matter is the American West. "There is a way in which myth bumps up against fact when you're talking about the American West," he says by phone. "The American West has lots of things about it that are really in the realm of legend and myth. In other words, they may not literally be true as a factual matter, but they fit behind values which we associate with the West, whether it is individualism, courage, etc."
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At the Autry, the goal is to make sense of what is real and what isn't. West points to "Human Nature," which looks at the intersection of Native American culture and environmental issues and is part of the greater "California Continued" exhibition, as an example of this. "It is anthropology. It is archaeology. It is historical material. It is all of that," he explains. "That is the basis for the research that we conduct in trying to present what we present."
West says that museums should be viewed as a "social and civic space," and that makes them ideal to tackling the issues of a post-truth world. "When you think of the museum as a forum and you think of the research that buttresses what museums do, they are a perfect place to try and separate truth from non-truth, and facts from alternative facts," he says. "I think that museums have a stake in trying to do precisely that kind of thing."
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