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$13-million gift boosts Natural History Museum's footprint

The donation to the Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum, the largest from the Otis Booth Foundation, will go toward an expansive glass entrance pavilion that will have as its centerpiece a 63-foot-long fin whale.

January 05, 2011|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

The benefits of having a well-known identifying symbol or trademark attraction are well known to leaders of the Natural History Museum. While the main museum in Exposition Park draws 73% of its attendance from within Los Angeles County — many of them schoolchildren — its sister institution, the much smaller and narrowly focused Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, nearly reverses that equation, drawing 63% of its visitors from outside the county. That can be partly explained by the fact that the tar pits are internationally renowned as the world's most bountiful source of fossilized bones from the Ice Age. Pisano hopes that with new mammal and dinosaur halls, striking new natural grounds and a whale-under-glass, the Exposition Park flagship building will join visitors' list of must-see attractions.

The Otis Booth Foundation's gift doesn't directly advance the museum's "NHM Next" fundraising campaign, which still has $51 million to go to reach its $135-million goal. But Haaga, the museum board's chairman, sees the entry pavilion's creation as "really impactful and helpful in every way." The association with a respected Los Angeles figure such as Booth, and the foundation he created, could have an "endorsement effect" that will attract other philanthropists, Haaga said, and the rollout of the structure itself will give the museum one more accomplishment to celebrate and use as a rallying point for further fundraising.

On the other hand, the Booth Foundation gift is support from inside the museum's existing family of backers, rather than an expansion of its reach via the recruitment of a major new benefactor.

Museum officials say attendance has increased 35% during the six months since the Age of Mammals exhibit opened. Haaga said its success confirms the wisdom of the calculated risk that museum leaders took in deciding to gradually open the new attractions one at a time, knowing that if the first one underwhelmed the public, it could make it harder to raise money for the work that remained.

"Success breeds success," he said. "People want to give to visibly successful plans."

mike boehm@latimes.com

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