Portrait of Manuela García, 1886-1927. Courtesy Autry Museum Archive.
Britt Cambell serves as the Autry Museum’s Public Engagement Manager. Janice Ngan is a curator for the Versos y Besos project. The following is a collaborative dialogue between the two.
Janice: Who gets to author history? During my graduate studies, I conducted research on how museums need to help connect humans through the arts to tell more than a singular narrative. I was deeply inspired by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who spoke about the danger of a “single story.” Single stories take away the possibilities for the subject to feel anything but pity from their viewers. Single stories inhibit the possibilities of equal human connections.1 Britt invited me to serve as curator of the ongoing evening series Autry After Hours (AAH) at the museum. I learned that I could base my project on artifacts within the collection, and that ignited my interest in archival storytelling. In my exploration, I found and chose Manuela García, whose musical entries in the institution’s archive numbered in the hundreds. And yet little was known about her except her role as an “informant” for a man named Charles Lummis.2 With this lead, my mission to hear Manuela’s voice and do justice to her story began. Manuela was a prolific songstress born in Los Angeles in 1867. She recorded over 100 songs at the turn of the twentieth century for Lummis’ “Catching Our Archaeology Alive” project and recited their full lyrics from sheer memory.3 It is Lummis, however, who is currently remembered by history as a jack of all trades. A quick Google search will index his many talents and projects: journalist, activist, historian, preservationist, archaeologist, poet, librarian, and founder of L.A.’s first museum, the Southwest Museum. By contrast, a search for Manuela García fails to recall the multiplicity of her identities, areas of expertise, and stories.
Britt: History is defined as “a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution), often including an explanation of their causes.”4 This distinctly Western, imperial, and colonial project of nation-building has authorized museums to serve as reliable sources of information and education for the curation of history for the public. To visit a museum is to engage with cultures of the past and present through works of art, education and public programming, methods of conservation, and historical records. Malcolm Margolin, former executive director of Heyday Books, defines identifiable elements of traditional culture as: language, ceremony, traditional arts, and skills, but also ambience.5 As the Manager of Public Engagement, I began to reflect on an inherent problem in the process of creating museums that had not yet been vocalized. Our physical space and our collection were not structured to allow engagement with culture that communicated ambience: a feeling or mood of a person, place, or time.
In 2018, I created and produced the AAH series that sought—through liminal space and the use of non-collectible artist contributions—to divest in the accumulation of objects and invest in what Yesomi Umolu envisions as “a culture of transparency, collaboration, and mutual understanding.”6 This series was deemed participatory, fun, and successful because it attracted a non-traditional museum visitor. 2020 marked the third year of the series. I wondered how I could get my institution to reevaluate their successes and strengths with a new model of knowledge sharing and content interpretation, rather than by reifying audience engagement as Umolu identifies in the limits of twenty-first-century museum curation. I leaned into my city for help. L.A. is a hub of radical imagining and interdisciplinary collaboration. I tapped three thought leaders to curate their own working collectives to produce the AAH series as an experiment. Janice was one of three curators who agreed.
Janice: My original intention was to curate an evening of storytelling through the mediums of digital and analog technologies. I had plans to pair a live music and poetry performance with custom-made parametric speakers that would bring Manuela’s century-old wax cylinder recordings from the archive to life. I wanted to bring people together for a shared experience amplified by music and sounds that would solidify their role as tools to generate empathy and connection.
When COVID-19 hit, I decided to pivot from an in-person event to a digital engagement. As I continued, I knew that I did not want to simply amplify her voice: I wanted her to be visible. I felt a palpable and pressing need to promulgate Manuela’s status as the first Mexican Californian woman record on the earliest commercial medium for reproducing sound; to introduce her expansive collection of folk songs that lived in the archives to a public audience; to illuminate her life, honor her story, and empathize with the feelings behind her music. I wanted to think with her—even in her absence— through the archival records. I wanted to tell not just her story, but to carry the flame of her culture: the language, traditional arts, and skills of first-generation Angelinos at the turn of the twentieth century. I wanted to create an ambience that embraced such confluence.
Britt & Janice: Through this project, we learned that sounds are better transmitters of culture than trade routes, borders, immigration restrictions, and most other Western, colonial divisions of nation-building. Sound obliterates the construction of private and public space: it bleeds, penetrates, and proliferates. Thanks to our team and access to twenty-first-century technologies, we were able to divulge a lot about Manuela. Our team included a poet, a curator, a museum thought leader, a sound engineer, mariachis, and other cultural specialists. We united to add dimensions to Manuela’s legacy beyond the single story of her archival and historical record as “informant” to Lummis. The challenges of this project became a blessing in disguise. In transcending tangible geographical barriers, it beautifully blended thoughtful curation and empathetic public engagement.
In this cluster publication you will find: a 15-minute binaural soundscape, archival images, a poem reorienting/reinterpreting the archive, an essay on popular music, copyright, women’s voices in traditional arts, writing on different types of technology through which we receive Manuela, and a contemporary performance of Manuela’s music from an all-female mariachi ensemble. We hope that you too can experience Manuela’s roots, family background, and immigration story to the U.S. during the 1800s. Together, let’s reframe the origins of societal issues that remain prevalent in our world today: domestic violence, immigration, the oppression of voices and erasure of histories.
This is one of six project components of Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García. Explore the other components here:
“Born in Los Angeles on Los Angeles Street”: A Poem for Manuela García / Amy Shimshon-Santo
The Female Voice Between Borders / Susie García
Mapping Manuela / Marissa López
Our Shared History: The Revolutions of the Wax Cylinders / Delia Xóchitl Chávez
Janice is a multidisciplinary Artist x Arts Manager x Curator who received her Master of Arts in Arts Management from Claremont Graduate University, in partnership with Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Drucker School of Management. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, with an emphasis on sculptural, photography, and videography works. She was born in Hong Kong and encompasses an international background, fluent in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and conversational in Spanish. She is passionate about the arts serving as a vehicle to catalyze progressive conversations and transform the lives of others, as it has done so for her at a young age. Having interacted with people from all walks of life, she is interested in utilizing art as a storytelling tool and an avenue to create harmonious spaces for humanizing experiences. Her practices place an emphasis on multiculturalism, involving the intersection of site-specific works, technology, and relational aesthetics. She currently serves as a Product Manager for AIR Concepts Limited and is the Co-Founder of Art In Residence, a non-profit arts organization with a mission to explore the potential of public art by engaging with the community through active practice, outreach, and education. During her spare time, you can find her perusing through art galleries and museums as well as reconnecting with nature by the side of her dog, Gilbert.
Britt is the Manager of Public Engagement at the Autry Museum. A second-generation Angelino, Britt locates her practice in L.A. because of artists in the city using their practice to tell stories about place and identity. She is a member of the collective Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García, produces Southern California’s largest Native American Indian Arts Marketplace, serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Educators of Southern California, is a staff writer for Valley Doll Magazine, and a former docent for Desert X 2019. Portfolio highlights include Autry After Hours and Reflections programs at the Autry. Britt received a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of California Santa Barbara, and has been accepted into the 2021 Executive Education for the Next Generation of Museum Leaders cohort at Claremont Graduate University.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, TEDGlobal: Ideas Worth Spreading (Oxford, UK, 2009), accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
- Liza Posas, “Manuela García Sings: Now Streaming”, Autry Museum of the American West, May 29, 2020, accessed September 19, 2020, https://theautry.org/research/blog/manuela-García-sings-now-streaming.
- Drew Tewksbury, “Charles Fletcher Lummis: Catching Our Archaeology Alive”, KCET Artbound, May 10, 2016, accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/charles-lummis-land-of-sunshine-out-west-writings.
- See entry 2(a) in “History (n.),” in Merriam-Webster, 2020, accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/history.
- Kristina Perea Gilmore and Edmund Jerry G. Brown Jr., When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, ed. Frank LaPena and Mark Dean Johnson, First Edition (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019).
- Yesomi Umolu, “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice,” Artnet News, June 25, 2020, accessed September 19, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/limits-of-care-and-knowledge-yesomi-umolu-op-ed-1889739.