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Unique partnership brings Natural History Museum branch to Burbank mall.

April 30, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tomorrow morning, at precisely 9 o'clock, the doors will open on a natural history museum in Burbank, a public institution of culture in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

It is perhaps ironic that this gleaming new facility stands beside a parking structure in a shopping mall, in a city that is best known for pumping out prime-time television, the ether of modern society.

It is perhaps miraculous that this museum is opening at all.

The $2-million satellite branch of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County arrives at a time of tightening belts and budget crunches. It rose from a delicate and unusual tangle of negotiations among a Manhattan Beach developer, city politicians and county officials.

"This is a unique partnership," Burbank Mayor Robert R. Bowne said. "It took a lot of meetings and a lot of paperwork."

The result is a two-story, 12,500-square-foot hall along the northern edge of the Media City Center. While the county museum operates two other satellites--the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries and the William S. Hart Museum in Santa Clarita--this branch will be the first to offer a complete array from its collection.

The main display room encompasses 5,000 square feet and will be used to house traveling exhibits. The first of these, "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects," offers giant animated bugs, including an immense dragonfly that hovers overhead and a beetle the size of a Toyota.

Row upon row of mounted butterflies, moths and exotic insects accompany these robots. There is a hands-on section where kids can build model bugs and step into a giant insect head to look through refracted insect eyes. This exhibit, which continues until Sept. 12, is co-sponsored, fittingly, by the Western Exterminator Co.

In addition to the main room, the museum features a modern interior of tile and glass. There is a gift shop and an upstairs discovery center, where children can walk through a Sierra Nevada diorama, handle live creatures such as snakes and hissing cockroaches, and select from a library of nature books. Museum officials say artifacts from their gem and textile collection, as well as a few of their well-known, animated dinosaurs, will inhabit the facility.

All of this arose from a conversation at the Alexander Haagen Co., the developer that built the 41-acre, $400-million Media City Center at the corner of 3rd Street and Magnolia Boulevard. In order to gain city permits for the development, the builder agreed to provide space for public use within the mall. It was this common arrangement that led to uncommon results.

"We thought that rather than do the typical community meeting room, which isn't used 90% of the time, we wanted to do something to bring arts and culture to the suburbs," said Fred Bruning, the company's chief of staff. "We had heard that the natural history museum was looking for a branch location."

And if it seems odd that a shopping center developer would fund a museum, perhaps it shouldn't. The impetus for the modern museum dates back to the Renaissance, when wealthy individuals presented their collections for public viewing.

The Haagen Co.--which had already constructed a similar community-minded project, building a station house for the Los Angeles Police Department inside the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall--contacted Burbank officials. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich was brought aboard, and he provided a link to the Natural History Museum.

"The Los Angeles geography is so broad that our future direction was to take our collections out into the community," said Catherine Krell, a deputy director at the museum. Also, the museum needed more space--its main building in Exposition Park can exhibit only 2% of its collection.

So the negotiations began.

The Haagen Co. agreed to pay for construction and lease the facility to county officials for $1 a year. The county agreed to staff and maintain the branch museum. It was up to Burbank to pay the $50,000-a-year utility bill and chip in another $600,000 for interior design. Half of that would come from redevelopment coffers and the other half from a fund-raising campaign.

Beyond such basic agreements, there was the intricacy of leases and liabilities--who would step in if financial or physical disaster befell the museum.

At the same time, Burbank struggled with raising funds. Despite a $25,000 gift from Walt Disney Studios, it has attracted only half of the $300,000 that was supposed to come from such donations. To open on schedule, officials had to borrow the difference from redevelopment funds.

"There were several times when we faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles," Bowne said.

Or, as Vice Mayor George Battey Jr. explained, "There were several times when this museum almost went down the toilet."

But the negotiations pushed onward. As Bruning said: "I always felt it would go through simply because it was such a good idea. We wanted to bring this to the people, and the malls are the new downtowns of America."

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