LOS ANGELES — More than two decades after his acquittal for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, O.J. Simpson continues to fascinate the public and inspire attempts to make sense of his 1995 criminal trial. Last year’s release of a dramatic miniseries and a multipart documentary film about the trial and ensuing media frenzy revived interest in what was, for better or worse, a major cultural moment in US history. Predating today’s nonstop news and social-media cycle, the O.J. trial’s confluence of race, sex, celebrity, and violence enthralled the nation, splitting opinions along complicated racial, gender, and political lines.
Riding this wave of interest, a pop-up exhibition of O.J. memorabilia and art opened over the weekend at Chinatown’s Coagula Curatorial. The O.J. Simpson Museum, curated by self-described O.J. expert Adam Papagan, features original artwork by various artists, related T-shirts and media dating back to the time of the trial, and other merchandise that captures the mania around the case. It may be obvious to point out what this “museum” is not: a tasteful or critical overview of the O.J. Simpson story with nuanced takes on the intersection of race, culture, and celebrity. For those things, you’re better off watching the aforementioned documentary, directed by Ezra Edelman, or reading Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case, an anthology of essays by the likes of Toni Morrison and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
Instead, The O.J. Simpson Museum is a rather baldly commercial affair, with admission charged at the door, mostly bad art sold by the gallery, and T-shirts for purchase in a modest gift shop set up in a back room. Papagan is also the creator of “The O.J. Tour,” which takes attendees through the major crime scenes and points of interest in the O.J. story, all of which are in the artist’s native Brentwood, the wealthy (and mostly white) west-side neighborhood that became an unlikely crossroads for our country’s fascination with race and violence. In large part, The O.J. Museum feels as crass as some of the merchandise and artifacts on display.
Still, it would be unfair to say that Papagan’s endeavors is entirely profit driven or that his interest in the O.J. trial is simply opportunistic. Sordid fascinations with celebrity, violence, and death are nothing new in Los Angeles, where a cottage industry of macabre tours and museums offers visitors a brush with the famous and dearly departed. The O.J. Museum is part of the same tradition as the Museum of Death: both appeal to a cultural fixation that considers serial murders, mass killings, and celebrity deaths aberrations of society, rather than symptoms of a larger culture of violence that leaves a trail of less famous or sensational bodies in its wake.
The sheer amount of homemade T-shirts on display at Coagula is impressive, serving as an extensive catalogue of hot takes and polemics from the time of the trial, before blogs or social media could broadcast people’s opinions, especially in the form of memes. These bootleg shirts capture a sense of how much the O.J. trial was a part of popular discourse and how anonymous individuals participated in the yearlong spectacle and expressed their closeness to its events and characters.
Those who grew up in moneyed Brentwood, like Papagan, could certainly feel that proximity, even if they weren’t implicated in the trial’s political and racial dimensions. Unlike the Rodney King beating or the 1992 uprising, the O.J. trial brought Los Angeles’s boiling racial tensions to the doorsteps of white liberals who were comfortably ensconced in their enclave. “I never get tired of [the O.J. trial],” Papagan told the New York Times last year. “I think it signified the transition into the digital age. It was the last time our entire culture was all watching the same thing.” This is true to a degree, and the amount of ’90s references in the museum’s artworks suggests that the trial has become a touchstone for millennial nostalgia. But the ways that different members of our culture perceived and interpreted what they were watching in 1995 may have been worlds apart.
Papagan and I are the same age, which places us in the second grade at the time of the O.J. trial. I grew up in a middle-class suburb of LA, mostly white and Asian. The effects of my exposure to the O.J. spectacle at a young age are still nebulous to me, but I do recall a moment that encapsulates how unprepared and unequipped Americans are for conversations about race. Concerned about the ways in which the media coverage of the O.J. trial might be affecting children’s perceptions, my elementary school principal, a black man, took it upon himself to visit every classroom and speak to students about what they were seeing on television. The specifics of our discussion are lost to memory, but I can still recall the moment when one of my classmates said, out loud, that our principal resembled O.J. Simpson (because both were black). The principal, an unflappable Vietnam War veteran, took the comment in stride, but even as a kid I recognized the admixture of hurt and shame on his face upon being racialized and diminished by a seven-year-old child, who, like me and many others in the class, had probably encountered very few black people in his life up to that point.
If the pop-up museum’s library of books is any indication, few events in recent US history have been scrutinized and dissected as much as the O.J. Simpson trial. And yet, despite all of the major societal issues at stake in it — race, class, and domestic abuse, among others — 22 years later, we haven’t become any wiser. We can trace every clue of the murder or the specific foibles of the District Attorney’s prosecution of the case, but fail to trace how racism and gender violence continue to infect everyday life. We can speculate on how O.J. might have gotten away with it, but we’re less inclined to speculate how we can achieve justice without the police or provide recourse to women like Nicole Brown Simpson, who struggled to survive despite seeking help.
“We are a society that has been structured from top to bottom by race,” Crenshaw said in a 2005 PBS interview, reflecting on the trial’s legacy. She continued:
You don’t get beyond that by deciding not to talk about it anymore. It will always come back; it will always reassert itself over and over again. So I think it raised the question: Has the cost of being a society that is structured by race and we don’t talk about it, has [the cost] gotten so high, has [it] come to a point that we all agree that we can no longer ignore it?
Race is once again on everyone’s minds, but what are we actually talking about when we talk about race? Ultimately, race has benefitted most everyone except black communities, with no resources or power diverted to benefit those most impacted by the issues raised by the historic trial. The only lesson this country seems to have learned is that racial animus and violence against women are no barriers to celebrity and power. In the US, they can even get you elected president.
The O.J. Simpson Museum continues at Coagula Curatorial (974 Chung King Road, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through August 22.