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The Natural History Museum's New Nature Lab and Gardens

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I'll be honest: I never paid too much attention to the Natural History Museum. Its stoic tableaus of stuffed mammals and moodily dark gem and mineral hall presented a nice refuge from the heat on a hot summer day, but I usually balked at the adult admission price of $12 and headed for the suggested-donation-only California Science Center instead. (That fact, by the way, still blows my mind. I recently visited Boston, whose Museum of Science charges $22 admission!)

I was duly impressed when the NHM opened its state-of-the-art Dinosaur Hall, although even that didn't warrant a return visit from me, as my enthusiasm for dinos doesn't extend much beyond what I can muster up on my behalf of my six-year-old son. It took the recent opening of the Nature Gardens and Nature Lab to really pique my interest. I read a preview of the new exhibits in the LA Times and, sucker for sustainability catchphrases that I am, salivated over the descriptions of native plant and insect species and an expansive edible garden. And they didn't disappoint. The gardens and, in particular, the Nature Lab have injected a shot of adrenaline into the dignified museum, adding the allure of a botanical garden and the kid-friendly, highly interactive displays of a science center.

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The entrance to the gardens is located just off Exposition Boulevard, on the north side of the campus, open to the street and easily accessed from the Exposition Park Metro rail stop. A large blackboard next to the outdoor ticket booth announces which flowers are in bloom, which types of birds have been spotted this week, and what insects to look for in the garden -- and there are pollinators aplenty. Even though the gardens just recently opened in June, the plants are well established, creating a lush and inviting atmosphere for moths, butterflies, bees, ladybugs, and other desirable insects. Cool kids' features include "listening trees" with tubes that amplify the sound of water being drawn in through the roots to a dull roar, and the "Get Dirty Zone," where young ones can dig through compost for worms and sort rocks and gravel as if they were panning for gold. The edible garden will make modest home gardeners' eyes pop out of their heads with its bounty of herbs, grapes, bush beans, squash, heirloom tomatoes, apples, lettuce, strawberries and more. Museum volunteers harvest the fruits and vegetables and will offer you a taste if you're in the right place at the right time.

The bright and modern indoor Nature Lab focuses on the coexistence of humans and nature in urban zones and celebrates Los Angeles as a biodiversity hotspot due to its varied geography and numerous climate zones. Up-close-and-personal interactive exhibits on rodents, bedbugs, spiders, roaches and termites will delight most kids and gross out many adults; live rats run through a floor-to-ceiling habitrail, while virtual bats nest in rafters. Coyotes, mountain lions, and possums are given their due as well, and all in all, the exhibits are designed to foster a "live and let live" attitude. Another display defends the existence of seasons in SoCal, with an emphasis on urban gardening and the sights and scents of our native flora. The general vibe of the lab is fun and engaging, even as it focuses on the perils of human impact on natural habitats.

After visiting, I was inspired to purchase a family membership to the Natural History Museum, possibly in part to make up for my past years of cheapskatism. Besides, I like the idea of dropping by with the kids whenever I want to enjoy a pleasant outdoor picnic accompanied by a lesson in urban biodiversity.

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