The Natural History Museum at 100: 35 Million Stories

Stories Housed: Exposition Park Museum, 1926
Stories Housed: Exposition Park Museum, 1926 | Photo: USC Ditigal Library/"Dick" Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987

The county's Natural History Museum invited its members into its 100-year-old building in Exposition Park on Saturday evening. The management threw open for them the usually locked doors that lead away from the exhibitions into the corridors and storerooms that hold 35,000,000 objects, some of them as tiny as a pinhead-size parasitic wasp and others as big as the bones of a whale.

Except these millions of specimens and artifacts aren't just objects. They're stories, each of them as intricate as a telenovela.

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When a curator picks up the delicate body of a woodland bird collected in the 19th century, there's a story of West Los Angeles when it was a watery willow forest. Pick up a whiskey bottle, pulled from the excavation of the museum's parking structure and there's a story of Exposition Park when it was a racetrack and red light district.

Of course, I had to accept the museum's invitation to look inside the attics of L.A.'s attic.

Dr. Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum, took me around ... and up and down and into and out of offices, cubbyholes. and closets ... always in the company of crowds of museum members who had expressions of serious study or serious wonder as they leaned over temporary displays of bugs, birds ... and bones and movie memorabilia and a Tong'va basket almost beyond recognition as something a long-ago Angeleña made to be carried in the crook of her arm.

Among these things stood museum curators answering questions, delivering short lectures to impromptu audiences, and looking both scholarly and a little overwhelmed.

Dr. Pisano presides over this place, delighted with all of the museum's wonderful stuff and even more with the museum's staff members -- from curators to custodians -- who engage the museum's visitors, maintain the exhibits, do the research, and expand our understanding of life on earth and living in Los Angeles.

It's her belief that the museum isn't a 19th-century storehouse of objects but a 21st-century amplifier of stories.

The Natural History Museum is already years deep in a $135-million program of renewal that hasn't been altogether easy, either fiscally or organizationally. The museum's self-reinvention has already given us the marvels of the Age of Mammals in 2010 and Dinosaur Hall in 2011. Another permanent exhibition -- Becoming Los Angeles -- will open this year, along with a spectacular entry in which the articulated bones of a fin back whale will seem to navigate over visitors' heads.

These permanent exhibitions and the 3.5-acre Nature Gardens along Exposition Boulevard will connect the deep past to the immediate present of Los Angeles, unfolding in three dimensions the evolving world in which our lives are led. We're in that picture, too, not as triumphant inheritors of either nature or Los Angeles but as perplexed investigators of our place, uncertain what it is or what it means.

In Becoming Los Angeles, the risks of misinterpretation are even greater because the subject is more personal.

The story being told in the old museum, in its ultra-modern displays and in its ranks of bugs and birds and artifacts collected and studied behind the scenes, requires retelling - that today's settled orthodoxy can be tomorrow's discarded hypothesis. As disturbing as that may sound, it makes us part of every display and diorama, insistently sharing our tentative conclusions and fashioning the endless narrative of our lives together.

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