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Breaking out of the diorama

Can the Natural History Museum help save itself -- and the environment -- by focusing on today?

October 31, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

With 90 years under its belt and 33 million objects in its pockets, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a fixture of Exposition Park. It's where schoolkids go to see dinosaur skeletons, dioramas of African and American mammals, an insect zoo and California gold. It's Los Angeles' closet, a conglomeration of specimens and artifacts stuffed into a 1913 Beaux Arts palace with a batch of mismatched additions.

But fixtures wear out, and this one is struggling to revitalize itself with a fresh image and a $300-million expansion plan. It's as if the museum is saying, "Hey, what about me?" to a constituency that has either forgotten it or taken it for granted.

"Los Angeles has the raw ingredients to have a world-class natural history museum," says Jane Pisano, the museum's president and director, who took charge three years ago. "It could be a jewel in the crown of the city, just like the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago."

In the United States, the Los Angeles museum's collection is topped only by the 124-million-piece cache at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The American Museum has 30 million specimens and artifacts; the Field has 22 million. But the L.A. museum's $27-million annual operating budget and 410,000-square-foot building don't measure up to those of its peers. Annual attendance, about 1 million, has more than doubled during Pisano's tenure but still lags far behind the National's 6.5 million, the American's 3 million and the Field's 2 million.

That's not the way things should be, says Pisano, who is overseeing a transformation of the museum's programs and facilities. The curatorial staff has spearheaded a new look in exhibitions, in sync with a nationwide effort to make natural history more relevant to a broader public by focusing on ecological and environmental issues. And a fully funded, $13.5-million restoration of the building's historic core is about to begin. But fundraising for a major renovation and expansion, designed by New York architect Steven Holl, has only begun. A tentative plan, announced in July 2002 and in process, calls for demolishing post-1920s additions to the building and constructing a new wing with underground parking. The schematic design is expected to be complete early next year.

"The building is just part of a larger institutional change," says Pisano, declining to speculate about when all the money might be in place to begin Holl's project. "To make a compelling case to a donor, you have to present more than a building plan. You have to talk about who you are, why you make a difference to society and the community, and why someone should contribute to you as opposed to any other worthy cause. All of that is about your mission, your vision, your programs. We are on track with that."


Just how hard it is to rally financial support for an old institution with new ideas remains to be seen. But the museum's changing aspirations are already on view -- in two stuffed coyotes.

One of these beasts is a minor character in a cavernous hall of dioramas that has presented taxidermic mammals in their natural habitats for the past 70 years. This coyote has returned to his lair in the Owens Valley to feed his family, with a limp jack rabbit in his mouth. The classic diorama presents the natural order of life and death in the wild, in a glass-covered scene that resembles a traditional painting.

The other coyote is a nighttime urban raider who plays a provocative role in "L.A.: Light/Motion/Dreams," an up-to-the-minute, multimedia exhibition with a $1.3-million budget. He also holds his dinner by the back of the neck, but it's somebody's pet cat. Standing on a real diving board over a simulated backyard swimming pool, the coyote stares at the adjoining house. With no glass barrier holding them back, visitors walk right into a confrontation between man and nature, and it isn't a pretty picture.

The message is subtler in another section of the show, where videotaped footage of L.A.'s nature and culture, projected on mirrors, allows viewers to ponder the environmental impact of urban sprawl while enjoying a kaleidoscopic spectacle. But just around the corner is a stuffed raccoon in a trash can. Farther along, a replicated section of the Los Angeles River makes pointed comparisons between the sylvan past and the concrete-walled, graffiti-covered present.

Is this any way to run a natural history museum? Pisano thinks so.

"Our purpose is not only to be a repository where people can observe and learn," she says, "but to present our collections in ways that inspire people to take responsibility. If we do our job right, we are going to sensitize people to the importance of their nature and their culture in a way that will make them better citizens."

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