The Man So Obsessed with O.J., He's Opening a Museum
The O.J. Simpson trial has been the focus of Adam Papagan's life for the past decade. His pop-up O.J. museum opens in LA later this month.
All photos courtesy of Adam Papagan
Adam Papagan was six years old when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered a block from his elementary school in the ritzy Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
It was 1994, and the places Papagan remembers seeing in person—Simpson's condo, for example, or Mezzaluna, the Italian restaurant where Goldman worked and Simpson ate her last meal—were suddenly being broadcast across the nightly news. O.J. Simpson was charged with the double murder and television cameras captured his every move, from his low-speed freeway chase in a white Ford Bronco to his shocking acquittal after a nearly eight-month-long trial. Looking back on it now, says Papagan, it felt like "a cartoon you watched as a kid or something, but this is a murder trial, and a lot of people in my generation have this nostalgic look at it almost."
"When you're a kid," he adds. "You're trying to make sense of the world and part of it is like, 'Am I just a kid, or is this actually weird?'"
Last week, when news of Papagan's upcoming pop-up museum of artifacts from the Simpson trial made international headlines, the 29-year-old artist and musician confirmed once more what he already knew: The most famous murder trial in modern history was, in fact, objectively bizarre, and he wasn't the only one who felt nostalgic about it. In the days since, he says, people from all over the country have gotten in touch with him to boast about the Simpson-related souvenirs they've saved since the trial. Some have offered to donate their private collections to Papagan's Los Angeles exhibit, which runs from August 18-22 at the Chinatown gallery Coagula Curatorial, while others, he says, just wanted to bond over their shared fascination with Simpson objects from the 1990s.
Papagan says a TV reporter who covered the trial, for example, contacted him to tell him about the stack of notepads, interview transcripts, press passes, and courthouse parking permits he's held onto because he sensed, rightly, that they'd become a part of history, though he's not sure whether he wants to lend them to the exhibit. "He had a DIY laminate that somebody made that said 'Ross Cutlery Presents the Nicole Simpson Rigatoni Cookoff, June 12, 1995," says Papagan. (Ross Cutlery is the store where Simpson is said to have purchased the knife prosecutors alleged he used in Simpson's murder and rigatoni is the last thing Simpson ate before she died on June 12, 1994.) "That is truly in poor taste," says Papagan. "Now does that mean it should not be put up in an art gallery? Absolutey [not]. That is something people need to see."
Papagan is also planning to meet with a woman who contacted him claiming to have been a protester during Simpson's civil trial. She said she saved her signs, printed with slogans like "O.J. is a killer" and mounted them to foam core. Conversely, Papagan's also heard from people who collected signs of support for the once beloved football star. One such sign, which reads 'We love you O.J.,' comes from a guy who contacted Papagan and said that he and his brother stole it from the front gates of Simpson's Brentwood estate when they were teenagers. "It's been in their garage for the past 20 years," says Papagan. "So he unrolled it, it's a little dog eared and stuff, and he's like, 'I want you to put this in your museum.'"
Other items that will be displayed in the gallery come from Papagan's personal collection. That includes the auction catalog from when Simpson had to sell his personal belongings to help pay his debts to Goldman and Brown Simpson's families, who successfully sued him in civil court following the criminal trial. (Simpson still owes them millions of dollars.) The exhibition also includes a loaned collection of roughly 80 bootleg T-shirts that were sold during the Simpson trial, featuring slogans ranging from 'O.J.'s not guilty' to "Lock the killer up." The gallery's owner, Mat Gleason, says he's also received a barrage of emails from collectors of Simpson memorabilia, including people who claim to have footage of Simpson's wedding, autographed exercise tapes on VHS, CDs of original songs about the trial, and even a Simpson-branded juicer called "The Juice," signed by the spokesperson himself.
The gallery show comes at a time when interest in the so-called trial of the century has been revived by more than just 90s nostalgia. Last year, both ESPN and FX produced television projects about Simpson — O.J.: Made in America and American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson—and two weeks ago, more than 13 million people watched on television as Simpson was granted parole from the Nevada state prison where he's serving nine years on an armed robbery charge.
But Papagan's been researching the murders and inviting audiences to re-examine the phenomenon since he began hosting an unofficial O.J. Tour of Brentwood about a decade ago. The tours, which he recently put on hiatus due to legal concerns about using Simpson's name and likeness without permission, were available to private groups by appointment only. (He says he's never gotten a cease and desist letter, but if he did, "that would be a great collectible to have.") For $45 a person, he would drive visitors to locations like Simpson's condo, Goldman's apartment, and the former site of Mezzaluna, which is now a Peet's Coffee & Tea.
The origins of the unofficial O.J. tour date back even further than that. It was pioneered by Stu Krieger, the father of one of Papagan's high school friends, and a screenwriter who penned The Land Before Time and Disney Channel movies like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Smart House. According to Papagan, he begged Krieger to take him on the tour the summer after he graduated high school, and Krieger later gave him permission to take it over as his own. But Krieger says it didn't go down like that: Papagan decided to make the tour into a business without ever consulting him, he told me in an email, and he hasn't seen or spoken to Papagan since taking him on the tour. Krieger insists he doesn't begrudge his success, nor does he want any part of it.
The tours weren't exactly scientific, with Papagan offering his commentary on the local Ben & Jerry's and Jamba Juice, but they did attract famous guests like Lena Dunham, who called Papagan "a genius" in a Facebook post and defended the tour after her Instagram post of it incited outrage from fans claiming it was anti-feminist. Papagan says his amateur status—combined with the popularity of the tours—is evidence that people are thirsty for any kind of Simpson news and analysis, even when it's coming from a guy whose only qualification is having grown up in the neighborhood where it took place. "That's kind of the other funny thing about all of this, too, is that I'm not a journalist, I'm not a legal analyst, I have nothing to do with this really at all," he says. "But now people want to get my two cents."
The greatest evidence of Papagan's obsession with the Simpson murder case isn't the museum itself—it's the white Ford Bronco he recently purchased on Craigslist for $7,000. (The original, currently housed at the Alkatraz East Crime Museum in Tennessee, might also hit the market soon, with its current owner reportedly looking to fetch at least $750,000.)
Papagan raised about half the money to buy the SUV in a fundraising campaign aimed at using it to host a mobile museum, if and when his tours resume. But he says the truck is so big and uses so much gas that it mostly just eats money, as he has to move it every couple of days to avoid parking tickets.
It'll be parked outside the gallery during the exhibition, and if he can find a buyer willing to double his investment on it, he says he'll hand over the keys on the spot. He just has to find someone as obsessed with the Simpson case as he is. If the response to the museum is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem.
Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.