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A wide angle on L.A.

THE NEW DIORAMA: Vanda Vitali sees the Natural History Museum "looking now forward to the future."

March 11, 2004|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

A coyote stands on the diving board of a backyard swimming pool. It holds its prey, a cat, in its mouth as it gazes toward a glass-enclosed house in the foothills above Los Angeles.

This local twist on the museum diorama -- taxidermy meets the architecture photography of Julius Shulman -- is part of a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It examines the city as the intersection of environment and humankind, where civilization encroaches upon nature and nature sometimes bites back.

In "L.A.: Light, Motion, Dreams," a $1.3-million exhibit that opens Sunday, the city is viewed as a place of earthquakes and wildfires, skateboarders and surfers, beauty and beast. It is a mosaic more than a landscape, improvised jazz more than a symphony. It is a place of bits and pieces, sometimes polarized, sometimes strung together in a necklace of assorted jewels.

"This is a city you can't pin down, and when you try to do an exhibition, of course, you're forced in some way to make sense of it all," says Jonathan Spaulding, associate curator. No small task to begin with, and then they had to do it effectively for a diverse audience.

The exhibit incorporates video, art, artifacts, sounds and words to address universal issues of stewardship and sustainability through the lens of Los Angeles.

"To my mind, one of the most interesting things about Los Angeles is the hybrid, multicultural nature of the city," says Spaulding. "Different cultures, different ideas, different ways of thinking about society come together and forge something unique. That's a major theme of the show, how that hybrid culture has interacted with the natural environment."

The exhibit is structured around two sets of themes. One is more cultural, using light, motion and dreams as metaphors. The other is the physical environment: foothills, coast, plains and river.

What emerges is a view of the city and its future from the perspectives of the environment and its occupants, including the coyote. And including the cat.

Los Angeles is a place of dreams and new beginnings. With this show, the museum itself steps in a new direction as it attempts to redefine its role and expand its reach. The Natural History Museum, long the domain of skeletons and rocks, had to become more relevant in a city of landscaping and pavement.

Two years ago, the institution adopted a new mission statement: "To inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds." This exhibit reflects that new mission, says Jane Pisano, museum president and director.

"This is our first experiment in presenting our collection in new ways and trying to communicate with people across all ages and all cultures," says Pisano. "We feel that we need to do that if we're going to be a world-class institution located in Los Angeles."

The new mission statement also makes the museum a more activist institution. It changed not only the way curators viewed their collection but also how they viewed the city, says Vanda Vitali, vice president of public programs.

"It moved us from being a place that is designed to collect, study and exhibit artifacts and ecofacts into a place that has a role to play in the stewardship for our natural and cultural worlds," Vitali says. "So there was a switch from looking toward the past, looking now forward to the future."

Vitali, for instance, realized she needed to address a broader, multi-lingual audience, which is why the first two stations of the exhibit are built around video presentations with no words.

The first begins with a view of the city from a satellite that zooms in and takes the perspective of a California condor circling the city. The second is a video shown in a room of mirrors that is a reflection of the spirit of the city and its people.

"We train people who go to exhibits to try to think about everything," Vitali says. "Yet exhibits are far more successful as tools for transmitting emotions.... The first two sections are essentially preparing the visitor to start to look and feel -- not just think."

One of the most striking installations examines the coast and beach culture. Visitors enter an area depicting the ocean floor, strewn with debris, then step up -- or use a periscope -- to peer above the surface of the water at a diorama of the coast extending from the Los Angeles Harbor to Malibu.

Among the art included in the show is a graffiti painting by artist Sabre, a 10-by-44-foot mural of Los Angeles by Frank Romero and a turn-of-the-century work by plein-air painter Marion Kavanagh Wachtel. And in a archetypical Southern California touch, next to Wachtel's painting is a real estate sign depicting the availability of the very land she painted.

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