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Jane Pisano: The natural

The president and director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County talks about its mission, its goals, and her favorite stuff.

May 01, 2010|Patt Morrison

I wish I could play with that cartoonish phrase and say, "Jane Pisano slept with the fishes," but "slept with" here means "camped out under" and "fishes" is really a whale: the great Humboldt fin whale that hangs in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It was under that skeleton that she and some donors unfurled their sleeping bags not long ago.

Pisano has been the museum's president and director for nearly nine years. That's not exactly an eon, but it's a good piece of time in the history of a museum that turns 100 years old in 2013.

For a lot of her professional life in L.A., she was entirely about the future: as a vice president at USC, and before that as the head of LA 2000, a project strategizing the opportunities and obstacles for a future Los Angeles that is already upon us.

Now Pisano's work is about both: the distant and the near past of Southern California — in the splendid museum in Exposition Park across from USC — and the region's future, as the institution steps up its game with a $115-million makeover. That's all the hammering and sawing inside. Outside, there's the noisy work on Metro's Expo Line, which will put two light-rail stops right outside the museum's doors. And, still in the hard-hat stage, there's the splashy July opening for the "Age of Mammals" exhibition — as it says, 65 million years in the making. Trust me, they don't look a day over a million.

Was "Night at the Museum" like an educational video for you?

When I saw "Night at the Museum," I laughed. [ Ben Stiller] is a very creative guy, and it reintroduced the public to natural history museums. By the time that movie came out, we were on the road in our transformation. We already knew that the experience had to be fun as well as educational, keeping that and jettisoning the stuff that doesn't work so well. So we were able to laugh and enjoy the point.

Can it be said that this is Los Angeles' Smithsonian?

It's not far-fetched. We have 35 million objects and specimens here [about half of them research only]; we're second in size only to the Smithsonian in terms of our stuff.

What's one of the differences?

We've learned that the L.A. market is unique; that adults choose where they're going and they do it based on whether they think they will have a good time. We try to understand who is our visitor, who are our potential visitors and what would make them come. We learned in doing work for "The Age of Mammals" that our visitors can't tell you what a mammal is, but they want to know, and they don't want the science dumbed down. They want to know why they should care, and we can do that. People want to feel smart, and the "aha" moment is the fun — "Oh, I didn't know that!"

Who is your visitor?

A typical visitor is a multigenerational family. In school group season, our typical weekday visitor would be a teacher and students. Our paying audience is about 35% Latino, 10% African American and Asian, and the rest white. It's very diverse.

The sign on the freeway says "Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County." The phrase "natural history" goes back to

Aristotle. Does the museum need rebranding?

One of the things we decided not to do was change the name. We need to infuse the words "natural history" with a new meaning for a 21st century audience. It's about walking the talk of our mission, which is to inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural world.

Almost half of your operating budget comes from L.A. County, the rest from admission, endowment earnings and philanthropy. Is it harder to get donations because people think the county pays all the bills?

We've, I think, been pretty successful in making the case that the county provides enough money to keep the building standing and turn on the lights and open the doors, but all the things that make it beautiful comes from the money that the foundation raises or earns. Once you make the case that the institution couldn't carry out its mission if it were reliant only on county money, that seems to be persuasive.

Why does L.A. sometimes seem like it's a harder nut to crack when it comes to philanthropy?

I think it's newer philanthropy. A founder is going to give to what interests them, and a foundation will establish a mission and categories of giving.

How did you end up in this job?

I walked across the street [from her job as a USC vice president]! I've been interested in this institution long before I joined this board. When I read Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel," it really changed my life. I thought, "I really love this stuff. How come I didn't major in biology?" When they asked me to take this on, I said yes because I felt like it was an institution that could be world class and that Los Angeles deserved a world-class natural history museum.

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