Becoming Los Angeles Opens At The Natural History Museum


The Natural History Museum has just completed a six-year, $135-million-dollar transformation of its Exposition Park complex. From herds of new dinosaurs to high-tech video walls, the makeover has touched every corner of the 100-year-old landmark. 

The final phase of the renovation is the largest. Becoming Los Angeles is a 14,000-square-foot exhibition tracing more than 500 years of California history through family heirlooms, tools, toys, and photographs. From clay tiles formed on the thighs of indigenous workmen to a brand-new catalytic converter, the objects help to explain the evolution of the city. Museum curators sifted through 35 million pieces in the permanent collection and highlighted some amazing treasures.

In the August issue of Los Angeles magazine, we highlight some of our favorite artifacts from the collection in a gorgeous photo portfolio by Henry Leutwyler. Producing that shoot was a tremendous thrill for me. Artifacts I had only read about appeared from deep within the catacombs and came into Leutwyler’s beautiful light. Museum curators went to tremendous lengths to accommodate our hunger for the greatest hits of their collection, and we are grateful. Permanent museum exhibits are designed with a 20-plus year lifespan, which means no textiles are on long-term display, but the museum brought them to us anyway. We saw swimwear, the earliest Barbie dolls, and a bright orange 1970s suit that was new to the collection. Each expressed the spark of creative entrepreneurs and the heights of California design.

Becoming Los Angeles officially opened on Monday, and I walked through as a spectator yesterday. It’s located in the biggest exhibit space at the museum. The scope of the exhibit is as extraordinary as the city’s history itself, and you won’t be disappointed by the quality of the items (though you may be baffled by a couple of them—see below). Ask Chris, of course, has strong opinions about all matters L.A. history—a history that is difficult enough for even the most accomplished scholars to completely understand—so I wish the design of the exhibit was less opaque. Renderings I had seen showed light walls and a colorful steel ceiling guide that would lead visitors through the halls; instead, the rooms are dark and cavernous, and tied together with an abstract ceiling guide that is bright white steel.

This presentation needs some zing. I’d suggest freeing some of the most joyful artifacts from their austere settings: A playful midcentury skateboard is trapped inside a clinical glass chamber levitating in a hot beam of light. Walt Disney’s animation desk is mounted in a case that seems ten feet high. I stood next to children who had to jump up high to get a look. There’s a wake of stuffed buzzards, and creepy oversize Haunted Mansion-style portraits of glaring ancestors. Wandering from black room to black room, I counted 66 photos without captions, I saw more than a dozen paintings identified with black lettering on a black wall. It’s time for a ride on the color wheel, people!

The designers say that the mood of the lighting shifts from simulating candlelight to the soft glow of a TV, and even that description is a little generous. One particularly dark hallway required the full force of my phone’s flashlight to illuminate the names of L.A.’s founding families. Artists and naturalists have long sung the praises of L.A.’s natural light. I was yearning for more traces of the optimism, sunshine, and happiness that millions have come here to find.

As for the mystifying objects, I have to ask: Why would WWII plane spotters in LA searching for Japanese aircraft need a model of a British Spitfire? Does the local invention of the accelerometer justify the inclusion of an iPhone? My historian friends understand the significance of the Rainbird sprinkler head, and might appreciate the ’69 Plymouth hubcap in the show, but do those objects help us understand (and love) L.A. history better than an Eames chair would? How about a Hula Hoop? Everybody loves that Space Shuttle the Science Center has parked out back. How about bringing a piece of that over?

When visitors exit through the gift shop, they find themselves in Mia Lehrer’s glorious new nature garden. Her space reminds me of the best of this city: The innovation, the elegance, and the high design. The garden is a graceful and intelligent space full of life and vitality. I have every confidence that the museum, which has done such a stellar job on its makeover and is one of the most vital public spaces in this city, can make some adjustments to the exhibit so that I can use those same adjectives to one day describe Becoming Los Angeles.