Exhibit Critic

Hey there everypeoples!

For most people, museums are just places to take the family on a lazy weekend or places you go to gawk at stuffed animals and ancient skeletons that have no practical applications to their lives or society. For me though, they were one of the only places i ever felt at home, where i belong. I have been going to museums to feed my passion for the natural world all my life. Whenever we went on a trip i was always looking for a museum to go to. And these days, i my enthusiasm has not waned. Since i hope to open my own museum someday, i am always looking at museum exhibits closely, looking for inspiration, what works, and even things not to do.

But museums are far more than just casual desitnations. They are libraries of the natural world, archives where the wonders of our planet are kept safe for posterity. Their exhibits aren’t just to display things, but to engage visitor, to teach them about nature, how it relates to them, and why it’s worth saving. If done well, they can balance the telling of a narrative, the science behind the displays, and keep your mind engaged.

Not all exhibits are created equal though. Depending on the goals and the execution, an exhibit may turn out alright or even mediocre. Several factors affect the final product: budget, number of specimens, space, available materials, what would visitors like to see, what message are you trying to convey, etc. A lot of planning must go into the creation of an exhibit, with schematics and concept art being the first step.One of the reasons i love concept art so much (and think should be display far more often, no matter the project) is comparing the original idea to the finished product. Sometimes it remains intact; far more often the finished exhibit hardly resembles it’s ancestral form on paper. It shows the evolution of the thoughts and ideas that went into the project. And sometimes, the original idea may be better than the one comprising the final incarnation. But the success of an exhibit depends on the execution of the ideas. Did you successfully convey your message? Did you make effective use of the space? Do you have any interactive elements and if so, are they fun, informative/easy to understand, and easy to maintain? Does it create a dynamic and stimulating environment for guests to explore? These are the questions that define the success of an exhibit. No matter how much money, space, or collections you have, if these questions aren’t satisfied then your exhibit may not be as great as you wanted it to be.

All this has been leading up to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s newest exhibit: “Becoming Los Angeles”. At 14,000 square feet, it is the largest exhibit in the museum. It tells the story of how the Los Angeles Basin went from a sparsley inhabited wilderness to a powerhouse of the modern metropolitan world. It is divided into six sections: The region at the time of Spanish contact; the Spanish Mission Era; the Mexican Rancho Era; the early American Period; the emergence of a new American city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the Great Depression and World War II, to the present. It sounds like quite the history lesson! And since the NHMLAC has over 36 million specimens in their collections, they must surely have tons of objects that each help tell the story of one of America’s mightiest cities! After all, they have 14,000 square feet to work with. And this was meant to be the final piece in their Next project, the penultimate exhibit leading up to the museum centennial. If they would pull out all the the stops on an exhibit, it would certainly be this one. So, how did this exhibit turn out?

Yeah they got a really big space and poured millions of dollars into it, and drew upon their vast collections. But frankly, i was underwhelmed. This was not what i expected from a institution as prestigious as NHMLAC (ok, maybe a little after the “Age of Mammals” display). It just didn’t wow me. Now you may think that unfair, that since i have been to so many museums that it would be hard to wow me. Let me tell you something: my tastes in movies and the rare instances where I’m not happy with my food would suggest to most that i have low standards (and let’s face facts, i do…). But I kinda do as well when it comes to museum exhibits. I can usually be happy with a display if they put at least some effort into it, or if they have some unique specimens. But when it’s as big and publicized as an exhibit at such a large and esteemed institution, the expectations are going to be high. Basically, there weren’t enough items on display, there were space issues, and i just flat out didn’t like the overall design. So just why did this exhibit fail to live up to the hype?

The first big screw up was the amount of specimens in the exhibit. There just weren’t enough (at least it didn’t feel like enough). You’re supposed to have the largest collection of artifacts from early Los Angeles. Where are they? Alright, alright, they did have some cool specimens. Like a fragment of Native American plank canoe, the table on which the Treatie of Cahuenga was signed, and the animation desk used by Walt Disney to create “Steamboat Willy”. But these are supposed to be highlights, not the major components of the exhibit. Perhaps the worst offender was the Native American display. It was a small 3×7 case at the very beginning. It housed some artifacts related to plank canoes on one side and the other had a couple blank mortars and a completed one w/ pestal. That’s it. The next section on the mission period was hardly better. A food storage structure, a stone axe head, and a couple lengths of shell beads. You can almost count on two hands how many Native American artifacts were in this exhibit. We’re they not part of L.A.’s story? They’ve lived there since the last ice age. And yet they are practically ignored; you almost get the impression they weren’t important to the narrative until they were being subjugated by the Spanish, and even then the tiny section makes them look like a footnote. Now, i may be over analyzing here. But when you create an exhibit, you need to make sure your guests aren’t going to interpret it the wrong way.

This is all the Native Americans got in the mission era. Seriously? No comparison between Native Americans before and after contact? No discussion of the impacts Europeans had on them, like clothing, subsistence, tools, shelter, war, disease, and religion? Nope? Just a few token artifacts? Ok…

In fact it seemed the further in time we went the more numerous the specimens got (more or less). What happened to “the largest collection of artifacts from early L.A.”? Early means, well, early; not halfway through it’s history. I guess when looked at as a whole, there’s a satisfactory number of specimens on display. But when things are sectioned off like this, i tend to look at the individual sections, which can suddenly make it look like there is less than there really is (fall into that all the time with San Diego Museum’s “Fossil Mysteries”). But this was only the least of my gripes.

I’ll be frank: this exhibit had space issues. Now, usually when an exhibit has space issues, it is over loaded. It packs everything into a space not adequate for its needs and is usually a sign that it’s time to renovate. But “Becoming Los Angeles” actually has the opposite problem: it hasn’t filled up it’s space. Seriously, there are a couple of pockets of open area that feel completely wasted:

“In 1542, there was hardly anything on view.” The entrance to “Becoming Los Angeles”. That tiny case there? That’s all the pre-contact Native Americans got.

Just look at all that wasted space…

Seriously. You could have fleshed out the narrative, especially the Native American part! Each topic seemed to have a few artifacts related to it and nothing else. The section on the US-Mexican War in California? The table and two rifles. The huge interest in exotic animals in the early 20th century? A stuffed ostrich (ripped right out of the diorama in the hall of african mammals. Now there is just a void that used to, very obviously, have something in it). When the dinosaur hall was created, they seemed to try to cram in as many specimens as possible, even having a wall of 100 fossils. Why are you suddenly skimping here? I thought you had “the largest collection of artifacts from early L.A.”. The cases and displays just feel hollow and half filled.

But by far my biggest problem with the exhibit was the overall design. I really HATE this ultra-modern aesthetic that many museums are going with these days. Instead of trying to create a dynamic, immersive environment they are taking the easy way out and housing their specimens in sterile tombs fit for a sci-fi film. The L.A. Museum specifically said that it was trying to move away from the “cabinet of curiosities” and create a museum for the 21st century. Well they succeeded on the second part. It does look like the museum of tomorrow. But is that a good thing? You see, by just putting specimens on display without trying to create some sense of environment, all you are really doing is updating the cabinet of curiosities. Instead of cramped  and dark, it is now open and bright. But it’s still the cabinet of curiosities. They did this with the “Age of Mammals”. Because they have many modern relatives and analogues, it is easier to envision prehistoric mammals as living animals, and thus especially need some kind of environment to bring them alive. They also used this aestheic for the dinosaur hall, but i feel it actually kind of works there since we are constantly have to revise our understanding of them and their world (would be nigh impossible to keep changing the exhibit to match current scientific knowledge).

I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to an early 19th century ranchero!

Silly Doug. Sure, an immersive setting could bring this turn of the century oil pump to life. But this is a museum for the 21st century! We need a sterile and modern environment to remind visitors just how old and obsolete this machine is!

A wooden sewer pipe and a telegraph puncher. Are they heralds of the modern age proudly displayed or are they corpses from a past time laid out on the slab?

But it is perhaps worst here. To be honest, i felt like i was walking through an art gallery, not a history museum. These old, rustic artifacts just felt so out of place. I have yet to visit an exhibit that so heavily contrasts old with new. It just takes away from the fact these are decades, even centuries old. And there was this weird streak running through the top of the gallery. Supposedly it’s supposed to guide you through history, occasionally touching down at major points in time. But all it did for me was further take me out of the exhibit. It felt like an eyesore whose purpose is never readily discernible. I’d need someone to tell me just what the hell that was. And basically it’s the only thing tying the narrative together. I know it’s important to keep an exhibit somewhat open so that you aren’t forcing people through a narrow, one way only chronology. But like with the “Age of Mammals” hall, there is no real sense of order or progression here. It’s difficult to get a handle on the series of time periods when one is right across the hall from another. So i guess you would need the ceiling sculpture to guide you through history. Of course, that’s assuming you know that’s its function when you first walk in.

Time is a river of metal bands.

There was one cool display though. It talked about how one year there was drought which killed off a lot of L.A.’s cattle. Then the next year there was a grasshopper plague. They had the skeleton of a cow being picked at by vultures. On the wall behind, projected grasshoppers ran a muck. But it was still house inside one of those sterile tombs of a display case.

Sadly, the most imaginative display in the exhibit.

And two of the mini dioramas came back from the old California History hall. But they are set down in the bases of pedestals at floor level. Makes it hard to appreciate from up here at standing height.

Roping a grizzly bear, likely for a bear and bull fight. I had to crouch to get a shot of this.

There is just nothing here to make it feel like I’m on a journey through history. This looked like it was designed by an interior decorator who has never been to a museum before or some post-modernist artist who is more concerned with expression than teaching. Unfortunately big museums can get away with the infernal modern look because they get loads of visitors anyway. They don’t have to be creative because people are just cowed by the big displays and pretty specimens and then spread the word. Because they pack their halls with complete skeletons and tons of original fossils in lifeless displays, it feels more like the goal is to show off their mighty collections than educate the populace. But i think it’s doing both the visitors and the specimens a great disservice by just stuffing them in bland and uninspired environments. In fact, compare my pictures of the hall above with the Transcontinental Railroad gallery at the California State Railroad Museum:

The Transcontinental Railroad gallery at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Now what look’s more interesting: this or “Becoming Los Angeles”?

The Transcontinental Railroad gallery at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Now what look’s more interesting: this or “Becoming Los Angeles”?

I was literally floored when i rounded the corner and got my first glimpse of this hall. Seriously, i was in total amazement. First off, it has scale. It’s a huge space, enough to house a camp, a tunnel, a locomotive, and more. Second is that it creates that sense of environment. They really went all out to make it feel like the Sierra Nevada. Mannequins were hard at work, tools lay strewn about, display cases built right into the rock faces. This was so much more memorable than “Becoming Los Angeles” because this felt like a place to explore, not merely walk around, look at something for a sec, and then move on. It shows a desire to connect you with what you see by immersing you in it’s world. It’s not a showpiece; it’s a part of our world, both past and present. Simply throwing it on display with a small information plaque in a blank space dampens it’s uniqueness and fails to tell it’s story properly.

But what if i told you this wasn’t the original idea? What if i told you this was just the latest iteration of an idea? Would you still stick with it? Or do you think the old idea would have been better? I fall into the latter set. As i mentioned way above, i love concept art because i’m fascinated by how much an idea changes. And sometimes i find myself liking one of the original concepts over the finished product. Unfortunately, there’s no concept art for this exhibit (none that i can find anyway), but some of the earlier press releases for the NHMLAC renovations suggests a very different hall then the one we see now. In fact, it had a completely different subject.

The exhibit was going to be called “Under The Sun”. It would talk about the natural and cultural history of California, with the end talking about the risk both face at the hands of climate change. I thought this was a wonderful idea. I gripe ad nauseum  about the “Age of Mammals” hall not having enough fossils from places other than the usual localities most museums display. I know from my research and whatnot that the L.A. Museum has an extensive collection of fossils from California that never see the light of day: Their collection of fossils from Red Rock Canyon, the “goat camel” Capricamelus, and loads of stuff from my beloved Central Coast. “Under the Sun” could have rectified this by having a section talking about the prehistory of California, with these specimens (and/or others from the Golden State) finally getting their story told. But California is not blessed with just rich geology and paleontology. California’s unique topography creates a staggering range of habitats and microclimates supporting abundant plant and animal life. For thousands of years California was home to a great diversity of native cultures, with something like 26 distinct tribes living here. There are plenty of regional museums and visitor centers who talk about their respective areas in detail. But not everyone gets to visit them. Since Los Angeles, and it’s museums, are a hub of international travel, this would have been  a golden opportunity to really give people a sense of how diverse and magnificent California really is. But alas, it was not to be.

When i went on the San Bernardino Museum’s field trip to the L.A. Museum last year, we were given  a tour by one of the guys who works in the Dinosaur Institute. Eric asked him about the exhibit and he responded “They changed it to L.A.”. It was disappointing news to be sure, but I thought it could still work. LA is still a large area with fossils (the San Pedro gray whale, the skeleton of Gomphotaria (who i call the “crusher walrus”) from Orange County, and of course Rancho La Brea, which could have freed up room in the “Age of Mammals” for other fossils) and wildlife of it’s own. Maybe they could even discuss how these aspects of the natural world have fared in light of L.A.’s relentless urban expansion. But then I started to read descriptions of the hall to come. It wasn’t even going to maintain the spirit of the original exhibit. It was going to talk about the history of Los Angeles. This is a NATURAL history museum, although I  didn’t mind the California History hall because it was more inclusive and there were some really neat things on display, including all those beautiful mini dioramas. By why the sudden shift to LA? What makes it so special over California? I don’t know what the official excuse was, but all the promotional material kept saying “No one can tell the story of Los Angeles better than we can”. Gee, i wonder why! You’re the frickin’ Los Angeles Museum; of course you’re better equipped than most! But honestly, is that really something to brag about? Seems like a real niche area of focus to me. I bet the Nevada State Museum could the tell the story of Carson City better than anyone else. I’m sure the San Bernardino County Museum can tell the story of the Inland Empire better than anyone else. I know for sure the Florida Museum of Natural History can tell the story of the Sunshine State better than anyone else. How many other museums out there are trying to tell the story of Los Angeles? Who are you trying to outdo? I get you’re trying to make it local, but saying that you’re the best equipped when you are obviously the specialist is, to me, a rather weak selling point. And an especially weak reason to change from a potentially great exhibit to a less enthralling one

“Becoming Los Angeles” isn’t bad per-say, but for me, it was terribly underwhelming. The wasted space, the lack of any real Native American  discussion, and the shift from the awesome sounding “Under the Sun” all dampen my opinion. But what really kills it for me is the modernist aesthetic. At no point did i feel i was in a history exhibit. The sterile and droll settings utterly failed to draw me into the narrative. And the fact they devoted the largest exhibit space in the museum to this just adds insult to injury. It’s just not what i would expect from a place as vast and renowned as the L.A. Museum.

Now lets take a look at something smaller. We’ve seen how a big museum build exhibits (sometimes not so well), how about a small museum? The same trip I visited the L.A. Museum, i wandered on down to the John D. Cooper Center in Santa Ana. In case you have forgotten, they were founded a few years ago to become the official custodial outfit for all of Orange County’s paleontological and archaeological wealth. I was there to say hi to the wonderful people who work there as well as trying to identify a fossil my buddy found. But the Cooper Center is, unfortunately, a strictly curatorial facility. They try to keep their location off the books so people don’t break in and steal the precious specimens. So they don’t have any public displays. Well at the center at least. There are fossils on display at Ralph Clark Regional Park. And Meredith Rivin, their associate curator, told me there was an official Cooper Center display at the historic courthouse. So after my visit i headed on over there. So how was it?

I think it was decent. The specimens are just in display cases, like many museums (Including L.A.), with small info plaques and no sense of environment. So why do I call the Cooper Center display decent while tearing into the L.A. Museum for god-knows-how long  for doing the same thing? The answer is simple: the Cooper Center doesn’t have the resources of the L.A. Museum.

Doesn’t seem like much. But there’s actually quite a bit here. It’s just been concentrated into a few small cases.

Doesn’t seem like much. But there’s actually quite a bit here. It’s just been concentrated into a few small cases.

This is what you see when you enter. On the left you have ancient projectile points and on the right you have fossil shark teeth (there is a row of real ones right under the title). Pretty cool huh? Wonderfully joining archaeology and paleontology, the focuses of the Cooper Center. I love it!

It is a small outfit. They don’t have the money or the man power of the big museums. This means that there is only so much they can do. The Cooper Center exhibit is the best they can do right now with what they have. They did their best and really that’s all we can ask of them. Don’t like it? Then donate to them so they can get the materials and personnel to do better. Plus, they do have some really cool specimens on display:

A rare and fascinating fossil find: the fossilized vertebrae and gill rakers of a basking shark. Most shark fossils are teeth since their cartilaginous skeletons aren’t strong enough to fossilize. And yet the Cooper Center, being the total bosses that they are, have another set of fossil basking shark vertebrae (on display in Ralph Clark Park).

The skull of a new species of bear-dog. OC has some of the few (that i know of) early Miocene terrestrial fossils in California.

Ok, this is the only thing that bugged me. They don’t clearly date the specimen. It’s in the same case as the early Miocene stuff and the plaque even suggests it’s that age. But it almost has the same look as the fossils i have seen from the Telaga Quarry, which is Eocene in age.

A beautiful seashell fishing hook.

The always enigmatic cogstone.

That’s why i like these smaller museums. They focus on stuff that is different, stuff that in big museums most often gets shoved aside for the usual stock. If the specimens are unique and numerous, i can forgive the small museum for having the “cabinet of curiosity” feel. I know they are doing their best they can. Since they don’t have the vast collections, funding, and people of the big museums, the exhibit setting is just a victim of circumstance. So all in all, if you’re in Santa Ana, drop by the courthouse and see some of Orange County’s ancient treasures. It’s worth it.

It’s not easy creating an exhibit. Whether you have nothing or everything, it is a daunting endeavor. Being a big and well respected museum doesn’t mean your exhibit can’t be lackluster. Being a small and obscure museum limits you in what you can create, but if the heart is there, it can be just as good as anything else out there. An exhibit isn’t just a place to look at cool stuff. It’s an environment that we are actively exploring and enjoying. The space is just as important as the specimens being displayed in them. Without the right setting, the specimens are just pretty things to stare at. Too long have museums been portrayed in pop culture as boring snoozefests. They need to engage the visitor, immerse them in a world they won’t find anywhere else. And if museums keep going the sleek, modern route, i fear that world may eventually die out.

Till next time!

3 thoughts on “Exhibit Critic

  1. Hey doug, It’s a shame about that new exhibit at LACM. I had many of the same thoughts about the upstairs part of the mammal hall – too few fossils on display and way too much empty wall space, which is a bit embarrassing considering that LACM boasts one of the largest marine mammal fossil collections on earth. There are more (nearly by a factor of 2) fossil marine mammals on display at the College of Charleston, the floorplan of which is equivalent to the house I live in (1/3 to 1/4 the space at LACM).

    • I hear ya. Well not only because of marine mammals but also terrestrial ones! They have so many fossils from CA and beyond that no one else does, but instead opted out for the same Midwestern material everyone else has. Which is why i like smaller museums better (like the one you mentioned). They show stuff that is different and isn’t on display in most museums.

      But for me, it’s not just the lack of material on display. It’s this “modern” design they seem to think is the way to go. To me a natural history museum isn’t supposed to look sleek and futuristic. I’s like some kind of oxymoron: showcasing the natural world and the most unnatural setting possible.

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