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LA’s most overlooked landmark, the Natural History Museum celebrates 100 years with a mind-blowing exhibit

LA Confidential, Summer 2013

Few things reach the age of 100 in Los Angeles—The Beverly Hills Hotel and the LA Aqueduct among them—but Downtown’s Natural History Museum (NHM), the very first dedicated museum to be built in the city, celebrates its centennial milestone this summer with a major overhaul of its Exposition Park grounds, a gleaming pavilion, and a new permanent exhibition hall chronicling the growth of LA.

“Instead of being a museum on a piece of property, we became an indoor/outdoor museum,” says Dr. Karen Wise, NHM’s vice president of education and exhibits, of the impetus for the renovation. “Instead of being a museum that focuses more on the past, we’re a museum of nature, natural and cultural history and of what’s going on today.”

Natural History Museum

The monumental skeleton of a 7,000-pound fin whale hangs in the NHM’s new entry pavilion.

As part of the 10-year overhaul, the impressive, glass-enclosed Otis Booth Pavillion, which looks out toward the museum’s neighbor, USC, is a welcome sight for those trekking Downtown. The museum also has the added benefit of two stops on the new Expo Line, which will take passengers all the way to the Santa Monica Pier by 2015. Suspended in the glass pavilion, which is equipped with LED lights for wild nighttime light shows, is the museum’s articulated 63-foot fin whale specimen, one of only a handful in the world.

Since the institution is bent on reinventing its category—it is now one of the most progressive “natural and cultural history” museums in the country—it has transformed the way visitors interact with not only the building (the Nature Gardens designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates are now a multifunctional outdoor classroom and gathering place, and the new outdoor amphitheatertype green space will double as a performance and screening area) but also the material within it. “We get children who do not spend much time outside. They literally don’t know carrots grow underground, they’ve never seen a strawberry plant, or picked an orange,” says Wise. “So the everyday experience of nature in the city is what we’re after in this setting.”

The new four-gallery 14,000-square-foot multimedia Becoming Los Angeles exhibition hall, curated by the museum’s creative director and director of exhibits, Simon Adlam, opens in July and documents how the interaction of land, people, and the environment has influenced the evolution of LA over the past five centuries, from native populations to the emergence of Hollywood to today’s wave of redevelopment. “The story is about causality,” says Adlam. “We use LA’s history to talk about the pivotal points when LA’s changes were irreversible and created the path to today and to our future. It’s a natural and a cultural story; it’s about the interplay between the environment and the people.” Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd., LA, 213-763-3466; nhm.org

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