Section of steel siphon. Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.
Thing explores archival culture by highlighting historic documents, collections, exhibits, and artifacts.
This edition highlights the archival research and questions posed by the Natural History Museum's 2013 exhibition, Just Add Water, as they relate to the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Words by Jennie Freeburg
On my refrigerator is a postcard of a watercolor painting portraying a glass of water and a familiar, resonant phrase to Angelenos for whom Mulholland is more than a drive: “There it is. Take it.” The postcard as perfunctory attempt to momentarily unsettle my conscience as I reach for my Brita pitcher, pour a glass, and then turn the faucet on to refill the pitcher.
The painting is from a 2013 exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, celebrating both the centenary of Mulholland’s declaration, as well as the founding of the museum itself a day later. As they have it:
One hundred years ago, on November 5, 1913, cattle ranchers and citrus orchard barons, city boosters and citizens gathered on the banks of the cascades feeding the San Fernando Reservoir to witness the first water from the Owens River surge into a thirsty city.
The crowds weren’t just cheering for water. A new apex of culture—the Museum of History, Science, and Art (the original name of NHM)—opened the following day.
The coinciding centenaries are instructive. Thinking about Los Angeles, archives, and “disaster,” my refrigerator postcard implicates beyond the refilling of my water glass. How are our vocations, our institutions, complicit in this “new apex of culture,” what is desiccated as a result, and who is allowed to claim and define things like “culture,” “drought,” “disaster”?
Artist Rob Reynolds’s 10 large-scale watercolors (including the one replicated on my postcard) for the NHM exhibition, titled Just Add Water, are concerned with similar questions about history, memory, culture, water and power. And these questions brought him to the archives.
Reynolds, Rob. Water & Power Building, 111 N. Hope St., Los Angeles, 2013. Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In addition to the watercolors, Just Add Water included banners circling the rotunda exhibition space, which were comprised of lists of names. For KCET, Reynolds describes going to the Department of Water and Power looking for the names of everyone who was involved in the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct: "I thought it would be as simple as going to DWP and finding a ledger and then going through and, hey, we get a bunch of names…”. What he found in the LADWP archives was the final 1913 aqueduct report, which “refers to the obvious folks” and makes mention of unnamed hundreds more who worked on the aqueduct. Reynolds wanted to acknowledge those whose lives were affected, ruined, and lost by the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
This research and memorialization as museum exhibition raise larger archival questions in the context of Los Angeles, water, and disaster.
To start, who is represented in archives about water transfer to Los Angeles? Or more telling, who is not represented, why, and what might such representation mean for archives, their institutions, and Los Angeles? There are, as Reynolds found, “the obvious folks” by which we understand well enough to mean those whose names we don’t need to consult archives in order to retrieve: Mulholland, Eaton, Roosevelt. There are even those whose names our archival institutions bear, like Huntington. General understanding of history tells us that there were many more involved than those obvious names, and to uncover those names we must simply look further into the archives, which Reynolds undertook with the help of Ann Stansell, a graduate student from California State University Northridge. For her thesis, Stansell had already been researching those who lost their lives in the St. Francis Dam failure, a list of names, grave sites, and other information never before compiled, names which Reynolds incorporated into his banners.
Stansell’s archival research is well-documented in her thesis and took her to the LADWP to sort through claims files, the Ventura County Museum Research Library for newspaper clippings memorializing the dead and the coroner's records, and the Los Angeles Central Library, among other repositories. In addition to those who died in the dam failure, Reynolds names those he found recorded as having dug ditches, worked in kitchens, protested the aqueduct, and those displaced by the aqueduct.
Crew, north portal of Elizabeth Tunnel. Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.
The presentation of these 8,500 names has the potential to both expand conceptions of who was affected by the aqueduct construction, but also to circumscribe the effects of the aqueduct construction to a finite period of a time and number of people, to an event or events that can be called disaster.
In his essay on Los Angeles and “the dialectic of ordinary disaster,” Mike Davis problematizes the labeling of particular disasters as discrete and as either manmade or natural. He posits that the ecology of Los Angeles itself argues against such neat conceptions of time and events:
As compared with the humid cratonic zones, Mediterranean and drylands environments preserve events of great magnitude (disasters) over longer periods of time. In other words, they have greater “landscape memory.” More of the past is visibly fossilized in the present; present processes, conversely, overprint paleoforms in complex palimpsests. (At the alluvial foot of the San Gabriels, for example, it is extremely difficult to distinguish the debris of recent or holocene great floods from Pleistocene events...
His examples of how geologists are moving away from a Newtonian conception of time echo Indigenous scholar Leo Killsback’s call to decolonize history by not imposing linear constructions of time onto Indigenous peoples and their histories (which isn’t the first time Western science takes centuries to recognize what Indigenous people have already known). This in turn brings us back to the difficult and necessary question of who is not represented in the archives of Los Angeles water history.
Former graduate student in UCLA’s American Indian Studies program, Chantal Walker wrote her master’s thesis on the Owens Valley Paiute resistance against the water transfer from Owens Valley to Los Angeles1. While much of Walker’s research is informed by records relating to Owens Valley Paiute within archival repositories, including and especially the Big Pine Tribal Archives, in another parallel to Davis’s palimpsest model of environmental memory, Walker describes the importance of a dynamic oral tradition in Paiute epistemologies:
Owens Valley Paiute oral stories are meant to be...told and retold by various storytellers who each may put their own variation on what happened in the past (depending on the type of story), comment on the present and prepare for the future. These stories continue to be told from generation to generation, demonstrating cultural continuity while supporting the notion that the Owens Valley Paiutes’ oral traditions are living histories.
The banners of Just Add Water include “Paiute families displaced by the bringing of big water to Los Angeles 1905-1930.” But so who is recorded as having been displaced (from 1905-1930)? And how is it anything other than displacement for a people to no longer live in Piayano Haaru2, meaning “Land of the Flowing Waters” in their language, but instead be somewhere called Owens River Valley where settlers arrive beginning in the 1800s, who along with their cattle destroy the lands and corrupt the water? In the palimpsest of history and geology, should we not connect forced relocation of the Owens Valley Paiute to the El Tejon Reservation in 1863 to the bringing of big water to Los Angeles 1905-1930?
Sandra Littletree, Cheryl Metoyer and others have written about Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge organization from an information studies perspective. Critical archival scholarship argues for expanding definitions of records and documents in ways that can better accommodate objects, oral traditions, and performance, while post-colonial archives scholars such as Jeannette Bastian propose ways in which we might read against the grain in colonial archives to better recognize and represent the colonized. These are necessary perspectives when considering the ways in which people are or are not represented and findable in archives and why.
If the banners of names portray a linear and ultimately limited representation of who was affected by the building of the LA Aqueduct according to settler-colonial archives, Reynolds’s watercolors in the context of the Natural History Museum open up other possibilities for grappling with the disasters of bringing water to LA.
Reynolds, Rob. Los Angeles Water Flowing Over the Owens Valley.
There is a tendency to create dichotomies between “textual” versus “oral” cultures, and arguments for incorporating non-Western voices into archives can be equated with or reduced to collecting oral histories. But confronted with a 7 foot tall glass of water (or even a postcard-sized one) and the phrase “There it is. Take it.,” one might start to consider the performance of colonialism. The oral history, the disaster, of a speech act: There it is. Take it.
Alongside an information/archival studies perspective, wherein gesture and performance can be incorporated into definitions of records and documents, in thinking about Los Angeles, water, and archives, I find myself turning to performance studies scholar Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire (coincidentally, LAAC’s June book club selection). Taylor doesn’t contend with existing archival scholarship on performance in/as archives (unfortunately unsurprising for a book on “the archive”), however, in writing on the dialectics of performance and text as pertaining to colonialism in the Americas, Taylor argues that it is “vital to signal the performatic, digital, and visual fields as separate from, though always embroiled with, the discursive one so privileged by Western logocentricism.” This distinction of separate yet embroiled with, archive and repertoire, is one way of regarding the relationship between Reynolds’s banners of names and the watercolor paintings.
It is also a way of looking at the relationship between “There it is. Take it.” and “A new apex of culture — the Museum of History, Science, and Art.” For, as Taylor writes, “Since their inception in the nineteenth century, museums have literalized the theatricality of colonialism.” Throughout The Archive and the Repertoire, Taylor is interested in how performance and text are used in service of colonization and used and subverted by the colonized, all of which has repercussions for how researchers and archivists interact with materials in museums and archives. In many cases, Indigenous practices were documented for the sole purpose of eradicating them.“The people called Indians” are a product of naming, a “move of the repertoire enacted for the archive.”
Librarians and archivists are aware of the power in naming and classifying, even if some refute that power on occasions when to do so upholds current power structures in their favor. As a field that continues to classify and shelve books about Indigenous people of the Americas in the “History” section, we should recognize how naming and inclusion can work to erase. In his article, “Being Assumed Not To Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative,” Mario H. Ramirez addresses how deeply invested in whiteness the archives profession is, and citing the work of Sara Ahmed, the article discusses the ways in which laudable, well-intentioned diversity efforts can work to uphold the white status quo in archives. “Diversity” can be a term wielded to obscure systemic racism, just as “water conservation,” or even, “drought” can obscure a system built on environmental devastation. From an interview Walker conducted for her thesis, the Paiute interviewee responds to her question as to whether there were stories in their family about conserving water:
Water conservation? Uhh I was always told to respect water um as for conservation uh, no. It’s just respecting it because it’s such a life source and not over using it, just using as much as you need and just always give back from where you take.
Ahmed writes, “if we admit to something then we are not that thing in the moment of admission.” So what disasters do we admit to, and to what end? A dam broke. People died, and people were displaced. There are their names. And there is a glass of water. There it is.
1 Chantal R. Walker. (2014). Piyahu Nadu - Land of Flowing Waters: The Water Transfer from Owens Valley to Los Angeles 1913-1939 (Master’s thesis).
2 Walker notes: This was told to me by one interviewee but I was also told it is called Paya Hoop which still means the same thing. There were and still are more than only Paiutes living in Owens Valley and that might be why there are different spellings and pronunciations. It is my belief that the cause for the different names is from their use of oral traditions in that the name of said location may be worded differently, but still have the same meaning.