Fascinating Objects Tell the Story of L.A. in This Revamped Exhibit

A sneak peek at the Natural History Museum’s improved <i>Becoming Los Angeles</i>

In 2013 the Natural History Museum unveiled Becoming Los Angelesa permanent display that details L.A.’s complicated and sometimes unlikely origin story.

Scores of items from NHM’s 35-million-piece collection recounted the vigilante justice of the mid-19th century, the life and times of Mexican missionaries in 1880s Santa Barbara, and the glamorous careers of Old Hollywood stars.

Five years in, the Exposition Park institution has restructured the gallery space (reopening to the public June 1), swapping certain objects for others that bring more long-lost narratives to light. “After consulting with several historians, we realized that some themes that are important to L.A.’s history weren’t getting their due,” says Gretchen Baker, NHM vice president of exhibitions.

A number of new Native American artifacts are on display as well as items from the early 20th century women’s labor movement, plus additions from contemporary artists like Chicano art trail-blazer Judithe Hernández. (For the first time at NHM you can also see Barbara Carrasco’s 1981 mural, L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, censored long ago for its content, in the temporary gallery next door through August 18.)

We got the skinny on five things to look for as you roam a sprawling exhibit worthy of a sprawling city.


Sewing Machine from Alpert of Hollywood

Photo by Kyle David Moreno

“Louis Alpert was the father of the great Herb Alpert,” says Bill Estrada, curator of California and American history and chair of the history department. “He was very good at the mandolin, but he was a better tailor. This sewing machine, from Alpert’s store, conveys the story of women in the ’30s and ’40s who were subject to low wages, endless hours, and abuse, much of which still goes on today.”


Vaquero Saddle and Horsehair Lasso 

Photo by Kyle David Moreno

One of the museum’s original collections came from Antonio F. Coronel and his wife, Mariana. “I consider them to be L.A.’s first preservationists,” Estrada says. “He was mayor of L.A. from 1853 to 1854, became the California state treasurer, and was one of the founders of the Historical Society of Southern California.”

The Coronels accumulated items with Mexican and Native American roots. Estrada says, “This is a very rare example of a working saddle used by a cowboy on the cattle ranches that were once part of Mexican society in California.”


Tongva Beads

Photo by Kyle David Moreno

The traditional necklace made of fish vertebrae by Tongva Indians was found on the Channel Islands. It’s displayed near contemporary jewelry made by Chumash artisan Leah Mata, who crafts regalia from customary materials.

“Tongva descendants are [still] here,” says Kim Walters, exhibits research and content specialist. “Same with the Chumash. That’s what we want our audience to understand.”


Betty Grable’s Red Tutu

Photo by Kyle David Moreno

NHM’s early Hollywood collection is one of its most robust, thanks in large part to film studio donations. Grable wore this cherry red costume in one of her most famous films, Diamond Horseshoe (1945).

“Her legs were insured for a million dollars,” Estrada says. “The tutu is going into our Hollywood case, which rotates: We opened the exhibit with Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp suit, we’ve had Vivien Leigh’s dress from Gone with the Wind, and we’ve had Charlton Heston’s tunic from Ben-Hur.”


Toshiba Transistor Radio 

Photo by Kyle David Moreno

With World War II veterans securing low-interest mortgages (a result of the 1944 GI Bill), L.A. saw an explosion of single-family houses and a burgeoning middle class. “The radio is part of a case that talks about the housing boom,” Estrada says. “It’s a post-World War II Toshiba, one you could listen to a baseball game or the Beatles on. Along with a Frisbee, a 1950s Scotch cooler, and a model of a Cliff May house, it represents the ambiguities of the American Dream.”


RELATED: Becoming Los Angeles Opens at the Natural History Museum


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