A review of Mapping Jewish LA, a series of interrelated digital exhibitions on the past and present of Jewish Los Angeles, directed by Todd Presner and Caroline Luce
Mapping Jewish LA
Stephen Robertson, George Mason University
Todd Presner and Caroline Luce
Mapping Jewish LA (MJLA) is a series of interrelated “digital exhibitions” on the past and present of Jewish Los Angeles. As a work of digital public history, we are especially interested in how places (buildings, neighborhoods, streets) are critically connected to social and cultural history. We work closely with a range of academics and community partners to realize each exhibition and strive to recover, preserve, and highlight archival materials that have been hidden, forgotten, or simply overlooked. In partnership with the UCLA Library, we then bring those materials into the digital space, link them with scholarly analysis of their significance and contexts, and facilitate access to them. The technical infrastructure is reliant on the Scalar platform developed by Alliance of Networking Visual Culture, which we use for authoring and curating exhibitions, hosting materials, and creating data visualizations.
This project is conceived as a series of digital exhibitions that together form a digital publication analogous to a book on the cultural and social history of Jewish Los Angeles. But unlike a traditional book publication, MJLA is rich in multimedia content, including archival images, 3D panoramic photos, GIS maps, videos, music, and multilingual literature. All content is richly contextualized and users are free to navigate the materials by following numerous, intersecting pathways. The exhibitions make use of Scalar’s authoring tools and thus foreground nonlinearity, rich media content, data visualizations, and long-form narrative broken into interconnected pages. All of MJLA’s exhibits have been peer reviewed by scholars in the field.
To date, there are eleven published exhibitions as well as three sets of student exhibitions created as part of courses offered at UCLA. These range from more traditional digital mapping projects, like On the Map, which uses GIS technology and data drawn from Jewish community directories to demonstrate a pattern of geographic expansion and Jewish settlement from the 1880s to 2012, to more abstract types of mapping, as in Recovering Yiddish Culture in L.A., which aims to locate Yiddish writers within the literary landscapes of Los Angeles. In addition, we created one immersive physical exhibition — From Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez — which utilized the concept of “thick mapping” to examine the many historical layers of a single street in Boyle Heights, the epicenter of Jewish LA in the 1920s and ‘30s. The physical exhibition (with an AR component for visitors to access additional materials on smartphones) was co-curated by Caroline Luce and Todd Presner in 2016. A motivating idea behind the physical exhibition was to use our experiences with digital exhibitions to reimagine physical exhibitions focused on interactivity, mapping, and data narratives. That exhibition was installed subsequently at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights in 2017 and the Boyle Heights History Studios in 2020. Parts of the exhibition have also been displayed temporarily in Los Angeles’ City Hall as part of Jewish Heritage Month (2017 and 2018), and it is currently being developed into a digital platform.
Our most recent project, 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles, a collaboration with the Sephardic Archive Initiative, brought all of these strategies together to provide a first of its kind history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in Los Angeles. 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles redirects us to another set of migratory journeys: the intersecting migratory, cultural, and urban histories of Jews from across the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Middle East. Its 25 dynamic, multimedia essays shed new light on the vibrancy of Sephardic culture in Los Angeles and its astonishing diversity, past and present.
The project was conceived to serve as a bridge between archives and institutions throughout the city; between university specialists, students and citizen experts; and between generations. Based on the feedback we’ve received, the audience includes Jewish Studies students and scholars; K-12 educators interested in adding Jewish history to their California history instruction and their students; synagogue leaders and educators interested in Los Angeles history; local civic leaders, both within the Jewish community and beyond; nonprofits and community organizations interested in developing their own digital projects; and genealogists and family historians seeking information about their relatives.
We are committed to cross-disciplinary, non-hierarchical collaboration in keeping with the Digital Humanities Scholars Collaborators’ Bill of Rights (2011). Our contributors include artists and curators, translators, archivists and community members, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, professors, historians, anthropologists, linguists, literary scholars, and musicologists. (Additional project personnel can be found on the project’s “People” page.) Caroline Luce is the Chief Curator of Mapping Jewish LA and the engine behind the project’s development. David Wu is the Chief Designer and works closely with all project curators on the authorship and design of their exhibitions in Scalar. While serving as Director of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies (2011-2018), Todd Presner conceptualized the project with Karen Wilson, Caroline Luce, and David Wu, and served as the Principal Investigator. Today, Sarah Stein (the current Director of the Leve Center) oversees a major archival collecting initiative, the UCLA Sephardic Archive Initiative, which created 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles, with additional support from UCLA Library Special Collections and the Maurice Amado Foundation.
MJLA has been featured several times in Jewish Journal in articles such as “Boyle Heights’ Jewish history celebrated with exhibition in the neighborhood,” “UCLA exhibition recalls glory days in Boyle Heights,” and most recently, “Sephardic Jews are Fighting for Their History to be Represented.” The project has been cited in multiple books, and inspired “Mapping Jewish San Francisco” at the University of San Francisco. In 2017, as part of Jewish Heritage Month, a presentation of the project was recorded at Los Angeles City Hall, where it was recognized by major city council members. Support for this project has been provided by the UC Humanities Research Institute, the Maurice Armado Foundation (for 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles), and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Endowment for Jewish Studies.
Mapping Jewish LA is a collection of eleven projects, published by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies since 2011, that explore the city’s past and present Jewish neighborhoods, organizations, literature, art, and architecture. All but one of the projects use the Scalar platform, in eight cases Scalar 1 and in two cases Scalar 2. The most recent project uses WordPress. Together, the projects showcase a rich collection of multimedia materials from the UCLA Library and partner institutions. The scale of content and the form in which that media is presented varies widely across the projects.
The richest and most extensive projects are three collections of essays incorporating multimedia sources. The White Plague in the City of Angels, an exploration of the response of the Jewish community to the tuberculosis epidemic of the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, uses images to enhance that account, together with contextual pathways of information about tuberculosis, the broader public response, and the biographies of the key figures. These contexts can be explored in a non-linear manner, but the paths are linked only by a few endnotes and to the biographies. The most recent project, 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles, is a beautiful site presenting 25 essays focused on how people lived rather than on the institutions and organizations more prominent in other projects. Whereas the Scalar projects use the platform’s affordances to present material across several linked pages, each essay in this WordPress project is a single page through which the user scrolls, incorporating images, video and audio but no links or interactivity, even in the maps that appear in several essays.
A second group of five projects are centered on media rather than essays. The most extensive of these is a digital anthology of works produced by Yiddish writers who settled in LA: Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles. Eight authors and three publications are contextualized with a timeline created in TimelineJS and populated with a variety of media and/or a biographical essay. Tags are used to identify themes; unfortunately, the “Themes” page is malfunctioning, so it is difficult to get a sense of how effective and encompassing that approach is. Hugo Ballin’s Los Angeles, the most fully realized exhibition in Mapping Jewish LA, provides a contextual essay on the muralist and sections on six of his works that incorporate essays on their background, maps to locate the sites, and analyses of the images that use tabs to juxtapose different perspectives. The remaining exhibits of media have less fully-developed contextual material, ranging from effective label-style text in From Grand Central Market to Supermarket: Los Angeles Jewish Grocers, a story of four family firms that uses images of stores, advertisements, and individuals, to more minimal contextual information that leaves visitors more on their own in making sense of the content, such as exhibits on the Herbert M. Baruch Corporation’s construction projects and on architect Charles Lee.
The final set of three projects are focused on areas and maps, not individuals or specific structures. Two of these are currently difficult to assess as many of the maps at their core no longer work, either resulting from broken links to Google Maps or other embedded content that no longer loads. The final project, On the Map, features the potentially richest map, showing the spread of Jewish organizations over time, but simply presents two maps as a series of static images, with no ability to identify individual points or explore the data.
It is almost inevitable that with the passage of time elements of projects will break and require work to sustain. Beyond the issues with maps and missing media in some projects, features that provide access to media in the Scalar 1 platform appear to be deprecated. The “Details” button that appears on media does not work, preventing access to larger versions of images and more detailed metadata. That is a drawback for projects all centered to some degree on media. So too is the limited metadata provided for the media. Although Scalar does not foreground the use of structured metadata in the way that Omeka does, additional Dublin Core fields could be added that would enrich a visitor’s understanding of the media. Upgrading the Scalar 1 projects to Scalar 2 would help, and the sites do not appear to have obvious customization that would complicate that process. Scalar 2 also streamlines the features the platform offers for creating additional relationships between pages and non-linear pathways through content, and for annotating images, features that offer the opportunity to build out these rich presentations of multimedia sources into digital exhibitions.