Museum pursues unprecedented project
Though the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sits across the street from the USC campus, its presence often goes unrecognized by students. Why? The reason isnât particularly clear, though it could be attributed to a lack of awareness, a facade that doesnât impress passers-by or simply underdeveloped interest in the museumâs offerings.
But with the Natural History Museum plunging forth into its next-generation improvement initiatives, however, itâs becoming clear that the landmark is more than a place to visit for anthropology extra credit. In light of the museumâs looming 2013 centennial, the team behind the project has ambitiously stepped up the game with a series of impressive developments in an outdoor area dubbed the âNorth Campus,â parts of which opened for limited prototype use on Thursday.
The good news? Thereâs enough here to perk up the attention of any Angeleno.
âWhat weâve done here is turn 3 1/2 acres of hardscape â asphalt and parking lots â into living, breathing nature,â Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum, said about the North Campus.
And sheâs not exaggerating, either. The new area is an impressive landscape of carefully chosen plants, natural features and recreational areas that adds a whole new dimension to the museum experience while taking advantage of a formerly unsightly expanse of asphalt.
Several distinct areas comprise the North Campus project, and highlights include the Home Garden, which offers visitors a showcase of fruit trees and garden vegetables and plants; the Transition Garden, which acts as a living history of the Los Angeles landscape; and a pond, which presents an aquatic environment to study various non-native creatures.
âWe went wild,â Mia Lehrer, the president of landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer + Associates, said with a Cheshire-cat grin.
Case in point: Even the most mundane of features sport fresh, innovative approaches. The museum refers to the retaining wall along the entrance, for instance, as a âLiving Wall,â built from rough-hewn rock to support plants and insects within its cracks. The stream that emanates from the aforementioned pond acts as a metaphor for Los Angelesâ own water systems, with a flow that disappears below ground and a section that can dry up in warmer weather.
Even the ground is unique: Instead of the usual concrete foundation, the museum chose decomposed granite, which allows rainwater to drain into underground aquifers but also flaunts a heftier price tag and requires diligent upkeep.
More than anything, North Campus aims to encourage biodiversity and to craft an urban habitat for the many intriguing species, both native and exotic, that call Los Angeles home. Karen Wise, the Natural History Museumâs vice president and leader of the North Campus project team, noted that the project not only offers relevant science for Angelenos to utilize in understanding their environment, but also some incredible insight into the abundant biodiversity of the city.
âWe can have a new kind of experience: a public field site as part of an institution, a place where we together â and not just we scientists and educators but we Angelenos â can understand, [for instance], why there are so many birds in Los Angeles,â Wise said. âThis is the âbirdiestâ county in the nation. What? Why is that?â
Herpetologist Greg Pauly put the creation of an urban oasis for wildlife in a slightly a different way: âBuild it, and they will come,â he said, cheekily quoting Field of Dreams.
Pauly might as well have been referring to people, too: Itâll be hard to resist features like the centerpiece of the North Campus, the sparkling Otis Booth Pavillion â a massive structure of glass and steel that will act as the museumâs official entrance. Thereâs also a gleaming, arcing pedestrian bridge that invites visitors into the museum, and itâs no coincidence that all these new developments face Exposition Boulevard, according to project supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
âAll those folks moving east and west on the Expo light rain line will know that [the North Campus] is a complementary piece to the tourism and attractions that make this part of Los Angeles County so exceptional,â Thomas said.
The North Campus project is part of NHM Next, an initiative to aggressively refresh the museumâs content and presentation that largely began in 2006 with indoor renovations.
The initiative, funded in part by the County of Los Angeles and the California Department of Parks of Recreation on top of private donors, has to date raised $105 million of its staggering $135-million goal. Though itâs literally a large price to pay to upgrade the museum, Wise believes itâs a game-changing move that will revolutionize the museum experience.
âYou wonât just see the mammals that were alive 65 million years ago â youâll also see their descendents right outside,â Wise said. âYou see the science thatâs manifest in the [indoor] exhibits, but it always feels a little static. Out here, the science is always going on, and weâre sharing it. Real science, real time, together.â
Wise pointed out that this is an unprecedented project, one that looks to make the Natural History Museum unlike any other institution of its kind in the nation.
Itâs probably a blessing, then, that itâs right across the street.