When ICA Associate Curator Kate Kraczon proposed a project with artists Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere, I was intrigued. They planned to develop a film connecting the history of William Wagner and the Wagner Free Institute of Science with the contemporary Mexican immigration experience in Philadelphia. The film would feature a norteño band performing in the Wagner’s museum, re-staged scenes from Chris Marker’s science fiction masterpiece La Jetée, and a history of the Mexican Luchador, folk icon, and actor, El Santo (whose image is featured on the shirt of La Jetée’s protagonist). At the time, I wasn’t quite sure how all this fit together, but was excited about the prospect of working with these artists in the archives and the museum and watching them transform the spaces of the Wagner into something new.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science is an educational institution and natural history museum founded in 1855 by William Wagner to provide free science education to the public. Semester-long courses were, and still are, taught in the evenings to make them available to as many people as possible. The museum, as it exists today, was set up in the 1890s and remains very much unchanged, evoking the feeling when you enter the space that you are stepping back in time.
Early in the project, Angel and Valerie came to do research in the archives to learn more about the history of the Wagner and its programs, and to help inform them about the space they would be working in. They were interested in finding out about the different types of courses and programs held at the Wagner, who taught them, and who attended the programs. I brought out the Wagner’s scrapbooks, which were compiled from the founding of the Institute up until the 1980s. In the scrapbooks from the 1860s to the 1910s, Angel and Valerie looked at early photographs of the museum as it was being set up as well as images of William Wagner and his wife Louisa. They found early course tickets and broadsides announcing courses of lectures that read ALL ARE INVITED in large letters. They looked through syllabi from courses on geology, physics, and organic chemistry, many of which were illustrated by lantern slides. They also learned that many local clubs and scientific societies, such as the Philadelphia Natural History Society and the Philadelphia Mineralogical Club, regularly held meetings and programs at the Wagner.
It was in looking through these scrapbooks, among the many lecture announcements, syllabi, and course tickets, that Angel and Valerie found items that inspired a new part of their project: two program booklets from musical performances that took place in the Wagner’s lecture hall in the 1890s. One was a Musicale to celebrate the closing of the Winter term of a course of lectures on “Sound and Music” on Thursday evening, March 17, 1892 (pictured here). The other was a Schubert Club Concert, gathered for the study of orchestral music, on Tuesday evening, February 13,1894. This discovery inspired the addition of a live performance in the Wagner’s lecture hall, which Valerie and Angel filmed for their piece, Memory of a Time Twice Lived.
On Wednesday evening, September 2, 2015, Jarana Beat, a Brooklyn-based Mexican folk-fusion band, performed a concert in the lecture hall of the Wagner. The program, Prelude to a Memory, was inspired by the nineteenth-century concerts that had been held there. The evening’s set included songs selected by Jarana Beat along with rearrangements of songs from the 1892 and 1894 performances, including John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post March and Giaochino Rossini’s William Tell Overture, as well as Trevor Duncan’s The Girl – Theme, which plays during the museum scene in La Jetée. Angel and Valerie filmed the performance, and parts of their concert footage appear throughout Memory of a Time Twice Lived. For that moment, this re-enactment of history transformed the Wagner’s lecture hall into something altogether new: an experience filled with memories from the past reinterpreted for the present.
Throughout Memory of a Time Twice Lived, you hear several versions of The Girl – Theme: from accordionist José Padilla in the streets of Philadelphia; from Jarana Beat in the Wagner; and from the original soundtrack—heard during the part where scenes from La Jetée are reimagined in the Wagner’s museum. Jarana Beat’s interpretation of Sousa’s Washington Post March accompanies the mysterious El Santo figure on his antics throughout Philadelphia, and Jarana Beat’s rousing performance of the William Tell Overture brings the film to a close. It is this music, played over and over in different spaces and times, which leads you through the film.
I have always felt a connection between music and memory. Music is a huge part of my life. It becomes a part of me, unconsciously informing my experiences, much like memories do. And it is the museums, libraries, and archives that house our collective memory. Our own memories are recalled when we step into an historic space. It is here that an object, feeling, or environment triggers a memory that transforms the experience into your own. The music of Memory of a Time Twice Lived and the artists’ quest to find the origin of the El Santo shirt are both informed and reified by the museum spaces and collections they enter.
Lynn Dorwaldt is Librarian at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, where she provides access to the Institute’s collections, which include books, journals, archival materials, and natural history specimens. She also works on the interpretation of the National Historic Landmark site as an example of nineteenth-century natural science and architecture.
Funding for NOTES has been provided by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation.