100 Years of Remembering: The Natural History Museum of L.A. County

 NHM Rotunda: Julia Bracken Wendt -- Three Muses (Science, History, and Art)
NHM Rotunda: Julia Bracken Wendt -- Three Muses (Science, History, and Art) | Photo: Jacob Feuer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Dr. Jane Pisano has led the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for the past dozen years through the renovation of the 1913 building (the museum's original home) and the adjacent 1920s building, as well as opening spectacular new exhibits of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and the history of Los Angeles County and giving Angeleños the new Nature Gardens and the Otis Booth Pavilion through the generous help of the museum's corporate donors, trustees, museum foundation members.

You don't know what tireless enthusiasm for the museum is until you've taken the top to bottom tour of the NHM as I have, with Dr. Pisano greeting every single staff member by name, giving directions to lost visitors, and sharing her knowledge of the museum's vast collections along the way.

Dr. Pisano was just getting started, and I was just exhausted.

Story continues below

Dr. Pisano asked me to say a few words at the start of the museum's anniversary day events on Wednesday. Here's what I had to say:

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 100th Anniversary
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Forgive me for asking a simple-minded question ... but why are we here? Given this invited assembly of city and county officials, of scholars and researchers, and of museum members and their families, the answer could seem obvious. I'm not so sure.

Apart from the celebratory events of this evening and apart from the coincidence of dates in 1913 that link the Natural History Museum, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and even the La Brea Tar Pits, apart from all of that, why are we here?

I think I have an answer. I wish it could be our collective answer. I think we're here because we choose to remember.

We choose to remember, knowing that Los Angeles is haunted by the consequences of willful amnesia and deliberate memory loss. A malign habit of forgetfulness has obscured the deep history of this place, a history in which landscape, climate, and the presence of all of us are in continual dialog ... a confluence in time ... a flowing together of place and people.

Yet despite efforts to forget them or find replacements for them, our memories of Los Angeles bleed through the noir myths and dystopian clichés as if the stories themselves knew how much we needed them.

It is the power of history not merely to make us more informed but to make us more whole.

We chose to remember that every actor in our fragile landscape ... every actor for the past 13,000 years ... has shaped what our place can be. We remember that Native Americans cultivated with fire the oak trees on which they depended for sustenance. Fire made the Los Angeles plain the open savannah that amazed European colonists in the 1770s. We remember that the Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Los Angeles River to prevent floods like those in 1914, 1934, and 1938. The Corps' tons of concrete made my flood-prone, working-class neighborhood possible in the 1950s. My neighborhood still depends on those tons of concrete today.

We remember that so many other decisions -- like the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, also 100 years ago -- were made for us by deeply flawed and conflicted visionaries, planners, and builders, although they were people of courage too.

They used the rough, imperfect tools they had at hand to make a place in which to live, just as we do today, equally uncertain about the unintended consequences of our interventions in the nature that is all around us.

We're on the steps of the Natural History Museum this evening because we long to know how the past shapes who we are and because we cannot afford to be merely sojourners in Los Angeles. We're here to perceive ourselves the way we truly are and to acknowledge that ahead of us is the hard, heart-wrenching work of explanation, reconciliation, and -- just possibly - forgiveness.

That difficult work demands a wider and deeper knowledge of our history - knowledge drawn from the new wealth of information inside these walls, knowledge that is alive to the blending of peoples, histories, and cultures that is Los Angeles County, and knowledge includes the patterns of rainfall and wildfire, earthquake and flood, light and air that form the nature world in which Angeleños are embedded.

The elements of Los Angeles are the simplest: air, earth, sunshine, and too little water. Notice that last lack of perfection. Los Angeles has always invited misreading as a paradise. It never was, except in the extravagant sales pitch that brought so many of use there.

This place is not utopia or dystopia, neither heaven nor hell, but our home.

And so a last simple-minded question: Here it is ... our home. What will we make of it?

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading