L.A.’s Natural History Museum celebrates 100 years

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I’ve been covering health care stories lately, which means I don’t get to go out as much into Los Angeles (visiting hospitals doesn’t count). So when a co-worker said he couldn’t make it to a sneak preview to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s  latest exhibits, well, I nearly ran out the door. The museum unveiled a new entrance, a garden and installations. Travel Tip:  Admission is also free for everyone on the first Tuesday of every month except during July and August.  From my story, Daily News, April 3, 2013:

The museum built on land where brothels, booze and gamblers once ruled will celebrate its centennial this year with two exhibits intended to take visitors back to Los Angeles’ future.

That means a lush, sun nourished nature garden where a parking lot once stood and a 14,000-square- foot exhibition that tells the story of how Los Angeles transformed from the home of native peoples and dusty pueblos, to the epicenter of the motion picture industry and a bustling global city.

The two upcoming exhibits at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, to be unveiled in June and July, are a culmination of a decade-long, $135 million transformation. The goal behind all the work, officials said, is to bring the visitor’s experience full circle with the message that a natural museum is more than just a repository of ancient fossils, petrified wood, and rusted artifacts: It’s a living monument that tells the ongoing story of how nature and culture intertwine.

“We wanted to create a place for everybody, where a whole family could have a unique experience,” said Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum.

In addition to its main entrance, visitors already can enter the museum from Exposition Boulevard, but come June they will walk over a pedestrian bridge that will lead to a 3.5 acre nature garden filled with native plants such as rosemary and hummingbird sage, artemisia and laurel sumac. Adults and children can stop by a listening post where specially placed microphones will allow visitors to hear the way a tree “drinks” water. They also can pause by a pond to watch for turtles, lizards and dragonflies.

“Every plant was argued over by our scientists,” said Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits.

Children also will have the chance to enter a nature lab and a “get dirty zone” where they can turn rocks over and examine pill bugs under microscopes, Wise said.

The Exposition Boulevard entrance also opens up to the Otis Booth Pavilion, the centerpiece of the gardens. The all-glass pavilion will feature a hanging, 63-foot-wide fin whale that will appear to be floating from those who can see it from the street level.

“The old museum looked like it was built to keep people out,” Pisano said. “This new entrance is going to say ‘Come in. It’s fun in here.’”

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The museum opened to great fanfare in Exposition Park on Nov. 6, 1913, a day after thousands of people followed William Mulholland to the San Fernando Valley to watch water trickle down the new cascades in Sylmar at the end of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The $350,000 Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, as it was called then, was built to enhance civic pride in an area once dominated by debauchery. Legal prostitution, bars and horse races lured corrupt politicians to the area. But the museum, with its grand Beaux Arts edifice, its 53-foot rotunda made of marble, gold and stained glass and its historical artifacts and fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits, placed Los Angeles on the cultural map, historians say. Over the years, the museum would amass thousands of historical and cultural objects, making it the largest collection of its kind in the West.
But time and the elements took their toll on the building, and in the last 10 years especially, public officials and private funders invested in its renovation, which included a seismic retrofit, the installation of high-tech electrical makeover, a restoration of the rotunda’s stained-glass windows and dome. Also opened was the Age of Mammals in 2010 and Dinosaur Hall in 2011.

But that water from the Owens Valley that rushed into Los Angeles was a pivotal moment for the region, said William Estrada, curator of the History Department at the Natural History Museum and the award-winning author of “The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space.”

The museum’s second exhibition, which opens in July, is called “Becoming Los Angeles” and will include a small glass bottle filled with the very same water that rushed into Los Angeles that day in 1913.

“A little bottle tells a big story,” said Estrada, who is working on the five installations that make up “Becoming Los Angeles.”

The exhibit will include artifacts and stories from the native Tongva peoples, the Californios and Mexicans, to present day. A wooden automobile from 1902 made in a Los Angeles factory will be on display as well as Charlie Chaplin’s original “Tramp” suit from 1932 and Walt Disney’s handmade animation stand.
“The Natural History Museum was the first institution to collect Hollywood Memorabilia beginning in the 1930s,” said Beth Werling, collections manager of the history department at the museum.

“It’s being designed as an environmental and cultural history of Los Angeles,” Estrada added. “The story of immigration and diversity of Los Angeles runs through the whole exhibit.”

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