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Natural History Museum announces new hall for history and ecology

January 12, 2012 |  1:01 pm

Natural History Museum new history gallery artist rendering
For the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 2012 means another year and another major new attraction.

Officials announced Thursday that a permanent exhibit tentatively called “Becoming Los Angeles,” the next phase of the $135-million “NHM Next” campaign that began in 2007, will open in December, adding 14,000 square feet of galleries documenting the region’s ecology and human history and how they intertwine.

The makeover will culminate in 2013, the museum's 100th anniversary year, with its first permanent outdoor exhibit, a 3.5-acre "urban wilderness" focused on the region's biodiversity, and the reopening of the special exhibitions hall that's been closed since 2006. The first attraction there, in June 2013, will be "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World," a touring show about the famed trading route between Baghdad and China that debuted in 2009 at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

The museum in Exposition Park has been augmenting its drawing power since mid-2010, when “The Age of Mammals” opened. The new Dinosaur Hall, presided over by a Tyrannosaurus rex trio, arrived in mid-2011. Both are in the original, dome-topped 1913 “Rotunda” building, whose renovation was the first phase of the project.

The result, officials said, has been a steady increase in attendance, with 685,000 visits in 2011, up 41% from 2009.

Museum president Jane Pisano said the campaign has raised $102 million (including a state and county government share of $38 million). With $33 million in private donations still needed, she said, "we're feeling a lot of momentum, and we feel very confident" that the goal will be reached in time for the centennial celebration in November 2013.

“Becoming Los Angeles” will be housed in four galleries, featuring scientific specimens as well as historical artifacts illustrating the region's human history. The story will proceed from Native American cultures through the Spanish colonial era that included the founding of Los Angeles in 1781, the period of Mexican rule and sprawling ranchos during the 1800s, the early emergence of Los Angeles as a significant American city, and its explosive growth during the 20th century as a hub of the entertainment and aerospace industries.

Tying the new exhibit together will be an unusual architectural feature,  a curving, white, sculpture-like canopy (pictured in an artist's rendering) made of light steel that will flow overhead and swoop down in four places, guiding visitors from one historical era to another by descending into key display cases that will feature what the museum describes as “iconic objects.” They will include a cross from Mission San Gabriel and an inscribed sword from the Mexican War of Independence. The new galleries also will house the wooden work station that Walt Disney installed in his uncle’s L.A. garage in 1923, then used it to make films such as “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 animated short in which Mickey Mouse made his debut.

The aim, Pisano said, is to illuminate not only how Southern California history has unfolded in the nearly 500 years since European explorers and Native Americans first came in contact, but to show how the natural landscape has shaped and been affected by human endeavors.

Rather than including zoological exhibits, the outdoor gardens stressing L.A.'s biodiversity will feature whatever wild birds, insects and small mammals decide to drop in.

Another prominent new element due to open in 2013 is the $13-million Otis Booth Pavilion, a 60-foot-high glass entrance hall fronting Exposition Boulevard, where one of the museum’s biggest skeletal critters, a 63-foot-long fin whale, will hang as the official greeter. Its funding was a special donation from a foundation overseen by the heirs of investor and former Los Angeles Times executive Franklin Otis Booth Jr., and is not being counted toward the $135-million campaign goal.

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-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Artist's rendering of the 'Becoming Los Angeles' exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Credit: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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