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 isn’t particularly clear, though it could be attributed to a lack of awareness, a facade that doesn’t impress passers-by or simply underdeveloped interest in the museum’s offerings.

Field trip · Students from the Ambassador School of Global Education admire the Natural History Museum’s new Home Garden, which features a variety of vegetables and herbs and acts as a space for educational purposes. - Eddie Kim | Daily Trojan

But with the Natural History Museum plunging forth into its next-generation improvement initiatives, however, it’s becoming clear that the landmark is more than a place to visit for anthropology extra credit. In light of the museum’s 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 “North Campus,” parts of which opened for limited prototype use on Thursday.

The good news? There’s enough here to perk up the attention of any Angeleno.

“What we’ve done here is turn 3 1/2 acres of hardscape — asphalt and parking lots — into living, breathing nature,” Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum, said about the North Campus.

And she’s 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.

“We went wild,” 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 “Living Wall,” 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 Angeles’ 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 Museum’s 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.

“We can have a new kind of experience: a public field site as part of an institution, a place where we together — and not just we scientists and educators but we Angelenos — can understand, [for instance], why there are so many birds in Los Angeles,” Wise said. “This is the ‘birdiest’ county in the nation. What? Why is that?”

Herpetologist Greg Pauly put the creation of an urban oasis for wildlife in a slightly a different way: “Build it, and they will come,” he said, cheekily quoting Field of Dreams.

Pauly might as well have been referring to people, too: It’ll be hard to resist features like the centerpiece of the North Campus, the sparkling Otis Booth Pavillion — a massive structure of glass and steel that will act as the museum’s official entrance. There’s also a gleaming, arcing pedestrian bridge that invites visitors into the museum, and it’s no coincidence that all these new developments face Exposition Boulevard, according to project supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“All 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,” Thomas said.

The North Campus project is part of NHM Next, an initiative to aggressively refresh the museum’s 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 it’s literally a large price to pay to upgrade the museum, Wise believes it’s a game-changing move that will revolutionize the museum experience.

“You won’t just see the mammals that were alive 65 million years ago — you’ll also see their descendents right outside,” Wise said. “You see the science that’s manifest in the [indoor] exhibits, but it always feels a little static. Out here, the science is always going on, and we’re sharing it. Real science, real time, together.”

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.

It’s probably a blessing, then, that it’s right across the street.