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Up at the Old Museum: New Ways to Tell the Stories of L.A.

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Illuminating | Photo: Flickred! 

I went up to the Natural History Museum -- it will be 100 next year -- and walked through its newest exhibition, still in the earliest stages of installation. I had talked with museum curators several years ago about their desire to tell the story of Los Angeles through the objects and images the museum has collected over the decades. Now that the exhibition -- called Becoming Los Angeles -- was about six months from opening, it was a good time to see where the story was going.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a microcosm of the story its new exhibition will be telling. The original, beaux-arts building was dedicated in 1913, when the city had grown from the dusty terminus of the transcontinental rail system to a newly globalized Los Angeles ready for the opening of the Panama Canal.

The museum then was intended to be everything under one roof: art, science, technology, and history -- and all of that history from Native American villages to the Spanish conquest to the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Later additions through the 1970s told the deep history of Southern California: saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and mastodons. The story of a triumphant Los Angeles, however, wasn't much changed even as the city around the museum went through dramatic changes.

The stories we tell about ourselves now have become more complex and nuanced. Triumph has been mingled with loss. The silenced have found new voices. The stories we tell have become better stories, I think, than those the old museum told.

I was taken through the exhibition spaces -- smelling of sawdust -- by Dr. Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum, and members of her staff. The empty display cases stood mostly in position. The walls behind them were marked off for the images that would be hung, projected, or digitally presented on them. Overhead, a skein of louvers led from gallery to gallery, bending and and dipping to pinpoint a vitrine where a key object will be highlighted: a wood cross from Mission San Gabriel, a Mexican-era sword, the headlamp from a Southern Pacific steam locomotive, and a Tourist automobile made in Los Angeles in 1902. Other object displays and speech/music environments pivot around these four touch-down points.

Director of Exhibits Simon Adlam provided the running narration, filling the empty spaces with an exuberant description of the objects and media that will take visitors deeper and deeper into the region's several pasts: cultural, ecological, social, and historical. At one point, a museum wall has been carved away to open a view to the landscaped gardens below. Californian trees and shrubs are thriving there, next to a simulation of the Los Angeles River.

The point, of course, is to reorient the visitor to the world beyond the museum wall where history has happened and is still happening.

1902 Tourist
1902 Tourist | Photo: Courtesy of Natural History Museum

The restored Tourist -- sole survivor from the Auto Vehicle Company's first year and the first production automobile to be manufactured in Los Angeles -- was already in place but under a tarp that suggested only the car's outline. I wanted to lift the edge to see the Tourist's chain drive, but I restrained myself.

The scale model of downtown Los Angeles constructed in 1939-1940 also was in place in the next gallery and partially uncovered so that I could see how the tiny, once-faded buildings had been conserved and restored. The noir city never looked so good.

Becoming Los Angeles concludes with the suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s. That's where my own story began, in one of the little tract houses from which L.A. was assembled then.

The installation crew had cordoned off the end of the gallery for storage and workbenches. It was so much like the construction sites of the 1950s that it might have been one of the exhibits, perhaps to be titled The Unfinished City.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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