August 29, 2010

Notes from the Field: NHM

I've decided that as a way to embrace life in Los Angeles I'm going to seek out spots throughout the area to take little field trips and immerse myself in the gems of L.A. It seems to me that the charm of L.A. is in the little things, the neighborhoods, the hidden spots, the particular locations that are infused with the quirky, eccentric, ostentatious flavor of the L.A. region. I'm going to try to find and enjoy them.

For my first voyage out into the city, I picked an old stand-by, the local Natural History Museum. As an avid (amateur) lover of geology, paleontology, archeology, and biology, I try to hit the local museums in most of the cities I visit. I grew up with Albuquerque's, and so judge all others by the high bar it sets -- because for a smallish city in a state many forget exists, it is a really good museum. I was very excited to see what Los Angeles, a city known for its talent, art, culture, and local natural history, the La Brea tar pits, had to offer.

The museum itself is located in Exposition Park, a gathering of museums, parks, and an enormous Rose Garden near downtown and USC. I had a snack whilst wandering the roses -- my green smoothie tasted faintly of roses, they smelled so strongly. The various museums are in various architectural styles, but somehow they all blend together. It makes you wish you were a kid in L.A., paper bag lunch in tow for your class trip.

There are two floors of exhibits, with expansions in progress -- a Dino Hall is slated to open in 2011. The building is a stunner: rich marble, polished dark wood, vaulted ceilings, a sweeping sense of space that retains a cozy, welcoming homey tone. Many of the exhibits themselves have dim lighting for the public area, with brighter spots highlighting the dioramas and displays. It was also rather chilly throughout, to protect exhibits. Dress in layers and revel in the relief when the outdoor temps spike. I immediately liked the museum for the almost early 19th century academia atmosphere, which made me want to wear tweed and have a nice cuppa.

The older mammal halls were quaint (and some of the taxidermy was a bit shoddy on the older donated specimens) but charming and the signage was full of fun factoids -- I now know that the unicorn legend is thought to originate from the oryx and of all the living land mammals, the hippo is the nearest relative to the whale. The new Age of Mammals hall was impressive, with excellent signs and displays and exquisite specimens all housed in a bright and modern room that managed to not feel to antiseptic despite the bright white light and clean architecture. It made it clear that the museum is doing its best to avoid a dank and stodgy fate.

Some of the other exhibits seemed almost haphazard or simply eccentric, almost like a curiosity cabinet of a curious old gentleman. The gem and mineral collection was extensive, though I found it a bit too crowded and the infographics rather dated. The hall of birds was also overly crowded, but I imagine would be fascinating to a bird lover. The hallway stuffed with Mayan, Incan, and Aztec artifacts was full of beauty; it left me wanting a full and proper exhibit. And the miscellany were just as fascinating, if odd. My favorite was an enormous fin whale skeleton suspended above visitors in a long, bare hall was artfully lit like some ethereal sculpture.

All in all, I would definitely recommend a trip to the museum. A bit rough around the edges, a bit worn, you can still slip into it like a beloved hand me down for a pleasant afternoon of curiosity and wonder.

((pardon the quality of photo -- I pulled stills from my flip cam video files))

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