Better Know A Museum: Los Angeles Part 1

Hey there every peoples!

Yet another dry spell. I have been busy traveling here and there. Not to mention grappling with depression. That tends to eat up your time. But I’m back now to contribute to the blogosphere once more. And this post will see the start of a new series highlighting the museums I have been most fortunate to visit. I thought that since I’m constantly harping on how I hope to open my own museum someday that maybe it would be a good idea to look at other museums to see how they present their materials. And to kick off this new series is a look at the big one. The grand poobah. The grand daddy of all museums in the west. I am of course talking about the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Now this is by no means the oldest museum in California. It is actually the third (the first being the California Academy of Sciences in 1853 and second, interestingly, is the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History in 1904). The museum was founded in 1913 in what is today Exposition Park. Prior to opening, the museum persuaded several local organizations to fill the exhibit halls with display objects. The museum also had rights to excavate the fossils turning up at Rancho La Brea. As most museums do it eventually out grew the 1913 building and it was expanded. Today the museum is the largest in the western US, boasting over 35 million objects in its collections.

Alright, enough overall history, on to the main event! Being the powerhouse that it is, there seems little the museum can’t do. And it shows in their exhibit halls. While some halls are as they have been for decades, many halls are being renovated for the museums upcoming centennial. And the exhibits being renovated occupy the 1913 building, in memory of its founding. The first halls to be completed are the rotunda and the Age of Mammals hall, so that is where we will start. I’ll do the rotunda next time because I really want to dive into the Age of Mammals. So here we go!

The fossil mammal collection is very robust here at the museum. I don’t have an exact count on their specimens but they number in the tens of thousands. The museum houses the largest collection of fossil marine mammals outside the Smithsonian. They possess a large collection of mammals from the western and Midwestern United States as well as fossils from California and Mexico. A large part of the collection was not excavated by the museum but rather purchased from other institutions, primarily in the 1960’s. For a long time they were exhibited in a rather blandish hall. But rain damage in the 2000’s had caused the hall to close down. The mammal mounts had to be cut out of their displays and placed in a temporary hall. Here’s how that temporary hall looked:

The old fossil mammal hall

Pretty weak, eh? The hall is dark, lacks any sense of dynamic environment and the skeletons are just sitting there, most not in any poses or in any order. They were just… on display. Unfortunately that was all they could do at the time. Luckily, however, in 2008 the hall was closed for good. Normally this would be a bad thing, but not in this instance. The hall was closed because it was going to occupy a new, expanded hall in what used to be the Discovery Center. So I anxiously awaited, following every bit on news, every preview picture I could, for two years following the new hall’s progress. So when I visited last week, you can imagine a great sense of relief in finally seeing the finished product. It was everything I thought it would be and more.

Now at first I was worried about the hall being plugged into a space that didn’t look much bigger than the one it had been in for the last 10 years (of course I only had the museum’s map to go by). But when you factor in the mezzanine, they were able to fit a lot in there. Most of the old mounts found their way in (Trigonias, Equus conversidens, and Paraphysiornis have bitten the dust, it seems). Now to the obsessive museum goer like me this may have seemed rather monotonous with little new stuff added. Except that it wasn’t. Many had been reconfigured into new, more active poses in a lit-up environment and there were a few new faces. The biggest and most pleasant surprise was this guy:

Skeleton of Epicyon heydeni, from a quarry in Kansas

Believe it or not, it’s a cast skeleton of Epicyon heydeni, the largest dog known to have walked the earth. This was quite possibly my favorite mount in the whole hall. Museums rarely display the skeleton of fossil dogs outside of dire wolves. They were a wide and successful group and yet never get the spotlight they deserve. I had always wanted a skeleton of Epicyon for my museum. Glad to see someone else actually did it.

Other new comers include Packicetus, the Simi Valley mastodon (but he’ll get his own post eventually), and several marine mammal mounts. The museum boasts of having the largest collection of fossil marine mammals outside of the Smithsonian. They decided to display some of this collection in the form of skeletons hanging from the ceiling. The museum decided to partially envelope them in mesh frames meant to show the shape of the animal when it was alive:

juvenile Morrice's sperm whale, Aulophyseter morricei, partly envolped in a mesh frame

I rather like this method. It shows the extent of the animal, but it doesn’t interfere with the form of the skeleton. The skeleton can be seen easily through or not through the mesh. Very clever, me thinks.

The mezzanine above the skeleton floor hold displays discussing how fossils tell us how animals moved, behaved, what they ate, and other details. It’s rather detailed and uses a wealth of fossils to compare animals across the spectrum. I stupidly worried that mammals were being crowded into that seemingly small hall. But I was just thinking in terms of skeletons. When raw fossils are factored in, they had a lot on display. And I realized something: the reason fossil mammals don’t get as much space as dinosaurs is because mammals are smaller. You can fit so many more of them in the same space as a few dinosaurs because mammals are (for the most part) smaller. Seems kinda like a “der” moment, but it felt like a revelation for someone passionate about the Cenozoic.

The museum wanted to create the look of a museum for the 21st century and it shows. The gleaming white walls, the flood of light, and glass panels. Now I don’t like it when fossils and skeletons are just put on display. I like to create a sense of environment that breaks away from the “cabinet of curiosities” look. Now that cabinet feel can still be present with a modern look. However, that doesn’t factor in to the Age of Mammals. They used stone to line the bottoms of the displays which definitely helps the “sterile tomb” look that you could get with a modern look. While they do use modern looking signs to help explain things, they have several computer interactives that help visitors go more in depth into what they are learning.

Now this all begs the question: with its bright natural lighting, fossil and skeleton packed areas, and computer interactives, what could possibly be wrong with this place? Well I do have a few qualms. First of is the glass paneling that separates you from the skeletons. Sure it allows you to get closer to the specimen and really get to studying it, but when you’re using natural lighting, you get a lot of annoying reflections and glares. It can be quite distracting. Another thing is that the Western horse and giant camel mounts feel a little crowded in their current position, pressed right up against the side of the mezzanine. Also, I remember reading in their newsletters that the San Pedro gray whale was going to be in this exhibit. The San Pedro gray whale is a Pleistocene…well… gray whale from San Pedro. It’s the only fossil gray whale in the world according to the museum. I was really hoping to see it here, but I guess in the end they didn’t have room or some other problem.

One more thing: this paleoparadoxid:

A new paleoparadoxid from Orange County

It’s a very impressive specimen. It’s the most complete in North America, it’s new to science, and it has many tooth marks indicating it was scavenged by a mako shark. It’s mounted in a swimming position and that is where the problem lies. There is a little sign explain that we don’t know how desmostylians moved on land and the couple ideas of how they did that. They said the museum side stepped this controversy by having it in a swimming position. Sounds like a copout to me. You would think a museum of this stature would tackle such a controversy head on. In a hall devoted to explaining how the science of paleontology works, you’d imagine they would have put it in what they thought was the most viable pose and then defended it. Who knows maybe they didn’t have time to do such a thing, considering the paleoparadoxid was prepared for this exhibit.

So with those minor annoyances aside, this hall was truly spectacular. They were able to effectively tell the story of the age of mammals as well as explain how science works. I would say this is one of the best fossil exhibits I have ever seen (San Diego Museum’s Fossil Mysteries may be smaller with less impressive fossils, but I feel they more effectively and seamlessly blended the story of ancient San Diego with the science behind it). I would even go so far to say it’s better than the fossil mammal hall at the Smithsonian! This hall is loaded with science, cool fossils, and epic skeletal mounts in a brightly lit, thoroughly modern hall. I am sure people will be raving about the new dinosaur halls, called Dinosaur Mysteries, which will open next year, likely mentioning the Age of Mammals only in passing as part of the renovation. But for me, I will say this: I think the Age of Mammals will be very, very hard to top.

Till next time!