Alex Rasic is Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, near Los Angeles, California.
If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?
Since I find this question so hard to answer, I am going to make things easy for myself and solely focus on my marvelous home state of California. The two sites that first come to mind are Watts Towers and Alcatraz Island.
Watts Towers is a series of 17 interconnected sculptures created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954. The sculptures are made of steel rods wrapped in wire mesh, which were then coated with cement and decorated with a variety of found objects including bottles, seashells, figurines, and mirrors. The tallest of the towers is about 100’! Neighborhood children would bring Rodia objects they found around their homes to add to his creation and Rodia would walk miles along local train tracks looking for scraps. I love that one man’s vision, often called crazy and ludicrous, and nearly demolished, survives as an emblem of inspiration for a community that has struggled to receive fair and adequate support from law enforcement and the City of Los Angeles.
When I first visited Alcatraz Island in the 1990s, I only knew what I had seen on film (Birdman of Alcatraz is my favorite!), read in crime stories, or learned at work. One of the figures associated with the historic site where I work, William Workman, is the first documented owner of the island. He was granted Alcatraz in 1846 by Mexican Governor Pío Pico, however, following the Mexican-American War, the grant was negated. Aside from all of that, I had no clue that Alcatraz had been declared a military installation in 1850, served as a prison for private citizens and soldiers accused of treason during the Civil War, was home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse, was the birthplace of the American Red Power Movement, and is an active bird sanctuary. Every time I have visited since, I have learned something new. The variety of topics that can be explored are endless.
Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?
I joined the paid staff of the Homestead in 1995. The designation is important because I started as a volunteer staff member in 1989, when I was a sophomore in high school. Growing up, the Homestead was my local museum, and never in a million years did I think I’d have been here for so long! From an early age I knew I wanted to work in a museum, but I was not sure what kind (art, history, science, etc.), so I did a lot of volunteering in college and as a young grad, but I kept coming back to the Homestead. I am so fascinated by the history of Los Angeles, and the opportunity to work at such an incredible historic site hidden (literally) in a city dedicated to industry. Museums like the Homestead are few and far between, and it’s a joy to provide a place of respite, renewal, and inspiration for 21st-century Angelenos. I started off working in both collections and public programming at the Homestead, but quickly realized that my passion lies in programming and interacting with the public and our phenomenal group of volunteers.
If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?
Hands down, the variety of things we do…especially if you work at a smaller institution. Everything from conducting VIP tours to unclogging toilets can come your way on any given day. Sure, we have areas of focus, but when you work with the public, you have to be ready to turn on a dime, which can be both fun and frustrating. I think our field can do a better job of talking to visitors about what we do, and involving them in the process of planning. We’ve been pretty insular as a field, but that’s changing more all the time.
What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?
Once again, focusing on California, it’s definitely Manzanar National Historic Site (a World War II era Japanese internment camp). 1942 was not that long ago. Why on earth did our government think internment of the Japanese was the right thing to do? As a first-generation American whose father immigrated to the U.S. less than a decade after internment began, I have always had a desire to learn more.
Why do you think people should visit historic sites?
There are many reasons why I think people should visit historic sites. Here are a few:
· To be surprised and feed our curiosity. As our programming and exhibits become more dynamic and visitor-focused, I think we will see more visitors come through our doors who will expect to see or do something special every time they visit, and they won’t be disappointed. Historic sites are thinking more about how to connect with their surrounding communities or with enthusiasts of particular subjects. (I call them “buffs,” Tim calls them “foamers”!) It’s an exciting time to be in the field.
· To better understand one another and to see the ways in which we are connected. There are ways to talk about subjects like immigration, family life, architecture, work, etc., that can relate to people of diverse backgrounds and ages. Asking our visitors more questions arms us with more ways to engage with them and make history more relevant.
· To have fun and escape from reality for a little while. Need I say more?
Thanks for contributing, Alex!
Related blog posts: A gem of southern California history; Japanese American history in Washington
Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me.