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Hall of Birds: 'You'll Be in It'

June 19, 1988

We have it on the authority of Jimmy Stewart, the actor, that "the greatest ornithology display in the world" is about to be built at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and, after a tour of the space and a look at the plans, we are inclined to agree.

It will be the Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds. Gone will be the dusty glass cases of stuffed birds. In their place will be three walk-through galleries, each depicting birds in a different environment--California mountain desert, Canadian marshland, Peruvian rain forest. "Animatronics" will be used to reinforce the reality with electronic animation of about 30 of the stuffed birds and other inhabitants of these places, while sound and light will allow the visitor to stand in the middle of the scene to watch and hear the changes that mark the passage of each day from dawn to dusk. In between these monumental displays will be galleries with 27 interactive learning stations, allowing the visitor to pursue information--through video discs containing visual and aural material and other up-to-date devices--regarding the nesting, migration and other activities of more than 100 species of birds. An expanded research facility will also be constructed.

We went along for the groundbreaking because of our interest over the years in the work of Ralph W. Schreiber, who, with his wife, Elizabeth Anne, conceived and planned the project as curators at the museum. Schreiber died of cancer at the age of 45 in March. We had in fact never met him, but we had talked with him from time to time on the telephone when we wanted to know something about the nocturnal singing of mocking birds, or the effect of El Nino on migrations to Christmas Island. Elizabeth Anne was at the groundbreaking, and proved as helpful as he had been. She is the coordinating curator for this extraordinary project now. She is pursuing all of the scientific work that they did for so many years together. They always worked as a team. "I'm discovering how much it meant," she added, reviewing all there is now to do alone.

The Hall of Birds is being funded entirely with private contributions, which is where Jimmy Stewart came in. He taped a video-cassette fund appeal that is a charming appreciation of the vital role that birds play in the biosphere. The message must have been heard. The museum is within $1 million of the $5 million needed to completely redo and expand the old bird exhibitions.

"Twelve years ago, when Ralph and I came to town and saw this hall, we decided it had to go," Mrs. Schreiber said. The transformation will be complete. Participation will replace passive observation. "You won't just look at an exhibit behind glass," she said. "You'll be in it."

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