The Watts Towers Bivalve Inventory Project

A biologist yearns to discover the secrets of Watts Towers’ shells.

Watts Towers is a 17 monument folk art installation in Los Angeles. Built from the 1920s-1950s by Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant, the towers are constructed from structural steel, chicken wire and mortar. They are decorated with a vast array of recycled materials, including glass bottles, broken tiles, shards of mirrors, and roughly 10,000 seashells.

Marine biologist Bruno Pernet is working to catalog the shell species which will provide a detailed history and physical record of the clams, snails, mussels, and other mollusks that inhabited the local shoreline over the 30-year period during which the towers were being built. 

For more common species, Pernet could identify them by sight. However, in order to track his progress and determine shells he could not immediately identify, Pernet had to develop a new cataloging system based on his pre-existing fieldwork. He could not approach this as he would in the field by creating a simple square grid, labeling the sections and recording the animal species found in each one. The towers, instead, were built free-form from Rodia’s imagination, making it difficult to develop categorizations or boundaries.

In the end, Pernet identified 34 species embedded in the towers — 24 bivalves and 10 snails. He also determined Rodia likely did find most of the shells on local beaches because 29 of the species were native to Southern California. Many of the species can no longer be found along the coastline, having left due to diseases and/or influxes of invasive species. 

Growing up in Los Angeles, I had visited Watts Towers but never thought much about the minute details of their construction. I agree with Pernet’s assessment in the article, that had these shells been in a natural history museum they would have been cataloged and labeled. It’s an interesting realization, especially when thinking about other public art installations and ephemera. It made me think about the following questions (which I do not yet have the answers to, so I will leave them here for you to ponder).

What is the role of the artist when using these kinds of natural materials? As a national historic landmark, what is the role of the curator and conservation team in preserving and maintaining these artworks? Should public art and installations be held to the same cataloging standards as art in traditional museum settings?

Pernet’s work provides crucial information about the evolution of California coastal ecosystems. The article did not disclose what would become of this information. As far as I can tell, the towers will remain unlabeled and the shells publicly unidentified. Having completed such a monumental undertaking, it seems contre-intuitive to not have this information readily available to the public in some form (unless it will be and the article did not address it).

Janna Singer-Baefsky, INFO 653_02

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Posted in Cataloging, Museums, Research Projects, Uncategorized

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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