Column: The Venice Heritage Museum tackles a complicated subject -- the beach town's reinventions

Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

History is a complicated subject in a place that embraces reinvention as strongly as Venice Beach, and you can tell by the neighborhood's murals.

There's Jim Morrison of the Doors; the cigar magnate Abbot Kinney, widely thought of as Venice's founder; and Teena Marie, a white soul singer from Oakwood, Venice's historic Black community. But there's also Chester the Cheetah, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, Albert Einstein and what feels like one young Arnold Schwarzenegger per block.

One mural even steps on this column's theme: "Venice Kinesis" features a roller skater posed like the Roman goddess of love in the Boticelli painting "the Birth of Venus" with a speech bubble reading: "HISTORY IS MYTH."

It's a bit heavy-handed, but I like it because Venice is the kind of place where a lot of myths are true but also where many truths are just well-established myths. It is the cradle of skate and surf culture built on the ruins of an aspirationally European entertainment district. Some also consider it the slum by the sea, a home to everything experimental, creative and countercultural. Equal parts hip hop, punk, soul and rock 'n' roll.

But reinventions require a blank canvas, so the history of Venice also includes the painful memories of people displaced to make room for the neighborhood's next evolution — the Black residents of Oakwood, the area's historic Latino and Japanese American communities, and before them the Chumash and Tongva tribes.

Balancing those narratives is just one small part of the task before the new Venice Heritage Museum, which opened officially on April 20. Manager and curator Anthony Carfello said the theme for the opening exhibit is world-building, a nod to the vast and varied creative energies the neighborhood has attracted over the years.


"We want visitors to come and ask, which Venice? Whose Venice? Venice from when?" Carfello said.

The exhibit starts by placing the traditional history of Venice's construction next to a reprint of the Hippie Phone Book, a lovingly illustrated Yellow Pages-style guide to the community's characters and businesses from the 1970's. Each room is meant to introduce another world in Venice's historical multiverse.

It's a lot to try to fit into a few hundred square feet and five rooms.

"In history you're always prioritizing something and leaving something else out," Carfello said. "So you hope to have an audience that understands that."


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