Skeleton of a Nothrotheriops shastensis (Sinclair, 1905) at the new Age… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
How do you squeeze 65 million years of mammalian history into an eye-popping, mind-bending, crowd-pleasing exhibition?
Not easily, even if you have a stellar collection of prehistoric specimens and a talented team of curators, scientists and designers who like to tell big stories with the help of interactive technology. Or if the showcase is part of a $107-million architectural restoration project.
But after years of planning, seismic retrofitting, construction and fine tuning, "Age of Mammals" will open July 11 at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park.
It's a giant step for a 97-year-old institution in the process of reinventing itself. The sweeping exhibition — tracking the evolution of mammals through epochal changes in geology and climate — will fill the dramatically renovated northern wing of the museum's original building. The adjacent rotunda, meticulously restored to its former glory, will offer a provocative installation of historical curiosities and paintings of mammals through the ages by American artist Charles R. Knight.
"July 11 will be like a coming-out party for us," says Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum. "This is an opportunity for us to re-present this institution to the public in a stunningly restored architectural space. We have done a lot of internal work, asking ourselves about the role of a natural history museum in the 21st century and what difference we can make in our community. These new galleries are the result of that."
Much of the transformation is physical. In the "Age of Mammals" hall, a concrete roof has been replaced with a lighter, carbon-fiber structure including a skylight. Walls have been hollowed and reinforced with steel rods and polymer. The original arched windows have been uncovered, and stone barriers around the mezzanine have been replaced with glass.
The finished product is an airy, light-filled, classical structure that suddenly seems contemporary. But most of all, it's an exhibition space meant to implement the museum's new mission: "To inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds."
"The traditional mission of the Natural History Museum was to be a steward of the past, to help people understand some of the big issues and questions from the time that life began," Pisano says. "We have added present and future dimensions to give visitors a more relevant and compelling experience."
With specimens such as a 50,000-year-old mastodon, unearthed in a Simi Valley real estate development in 2001, it's relatively easy for the museum to inspire wonder. "The wow factor," in the words of Simon Adlam, director of exhibit production.
"Starting with the 'Age of Mammals' was no accident," Pisano says. "We are building on the strongest collection we have here. Many of the fossils are from Rancho La Brea. And telling the bigger story of plate tectonics and climate change in association with the evolution of mammals in the last 65 million years is something we are especially well equipped to do."
Dictionaries define mammals as the highest class of vertebrates, consisting of man and all other animals that nourish their young with milk. They have mammary glands; their skin is usually covered, to some degree, with hair; they are warm-blooded and share a number of other physical characteristics.
In the exhibition, a parade of skeletons and taxidermic creatures that once wandered the Earth includes a giant jaguar, an enormous horned animal known as a "thunder beast" and a hoofed mammal whose descendents eventually abandoned land for the sea and turned into whales.
In one display, a modern stuffed cheetah is posed as if running, exactly like a skeletal specimen nearby. Marine mammal skeletons, partly encased in mesh forms indicating contours of their bodies, are suspended from the ceiling, as if swimming.
In sharp contrast to the ancient specimens, up-to-the-minute interactive kiosks encourage visitors to do on-the-spot research about mammals on display, compare them with other animals or tap into the museum's database. The central media panel, mounted high above eye level and conceived as a sort of movie trailer, spells out the exhibition's big ideas: "Continents move. Climates change. Mammals evolve." Images in the background depict the Earth in flux, with shifting land masses, weather patterns and environmental conditions.
If the main floor is the "wow" of the exhibition, the mezzanine is the "how," Adlam says. In keeping with the museum's desire to inspire discovery, displays on the upper level explore "how we know what we know," he says. Teeth and bones help scientists identify mammals, determine what they ate and how they behaved.