Staying relevant

Thursday 06 Jun 2013

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles redefines itself for the next century

Rewriting a museum’s mission is a daunting task. But Jane Pisano, the director of the National History Museum of Los Angeles (NHM) who joined the institution in 2001 just as it was rethinking its future was in on the ground floor of a major undertaking: the reframing of the National History Museum’s identity. Part of that task involved reimagining the Museum’s exhibitions but also its buildings and grounds which after a $135m investment is nearing completion.

The decade plus long transformation effort has been phased in gradually. In 2009, the Museum renovated and restored its original building and its historic rotunda. 2010 marked the opening of the new Age of Mammals exhibit and The Dinosaur Hall, one of the museum’s star attractions, made its debut in 2011. On June 9 2013 the Museum’s 100th birthday, NHM will roll out the final phase of its ambitious transformation project with the opening of its new Nature Gardens and Nature Lab and the Otis Booth Pavilion with its iconic Fin Whale specimen.

Led by CO Architects, the goal of the transformation project was to better weave the institution into the community through greater transparency and outreach. The Museum’s site and gardens were wholly reworked with an eye toward achieving better connections between indoor and outdoor program space and more than 60% of the indoor space was remodeled to bring in more light, add a cafe, and create additional gallery space for temporary and permanent exhibitions. The result is a throughly updated and better integrated ‘indoor-outdoor museum’ with double the program space.

The Otis Booth Pavilion, a glass-sided 6-story structure, will serve as the Museum’s new main entrance whilst creating a visual centerpiece for the Nature Gardens by day and a glowing beacon to Los Angeles by night. Once inside, visitors will hear the sound of the real fin whale and experience an immersive light experience provided by 33,600 LED lights that can simulate water, other fish and animals, and shadows. The Pavilion connects the Museum directly to the Metro Expo Line by means of a soaring cantilever bridge, in shape of a whale, that spans the Nature Gardens and a new outdoor amphitheater.

The Nature Gardens is intended as an ever-changing year-round nature experience in the heart of Los Angeles. A direct ground floor passage from the Gardens through the Pavilion to the NHM’s new Nature Lab completes the seamless experience of the indoor outdoor museum whilst the dramatic installation, high up in the Pavilion, of the Museum’s 63-foot-long fin whale specimen, visible from afar, serves as a symbol of the museum’s commitment to connect science with the community.

Jane Pisano’s bet that an investment this large could make the Museum not only bigger but better seems to be paying off. The annual attendance at NHM has jumped from 674,655 in June 2002-July 2003 to 851,860 in July 2011-20112. She is eager to share the newly transformed NHM with the public when it opens later this week.

“We have created engaging new permanent exhibitions such as Age of Mammals and the Dinosaur Hall, built, renovated, light-filled galleries and doubled our combined indoor and outdoor program space, making NHM a museum of both natural history and living nature. Now we’re excited to welcome everyone to a museum experience unlike any they’ve had before”, said Pisano.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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