But once you take in the museum's new show, "L.A.: light/action/dreams," you'll see what I mean. The exhibition is as flashy as the title suggests: room after room of atmospheric light and evocative sound bites. The theme is the tension between nature and culture on the coast, plains, waterways and foothills of greater Los Angeles.
Stepping farther in, you recognize a diving board, full size and three-dimensional, reaching over the blue glow. On the diving board stands a coyote, feral and attentive. And from its mouth hangs a limp cat.
Remember the image of the burning palm tree from the '92 riots and all its dystopian overtones? This is the same sort of emblem, with underlying issues just as complex.
You see it and you think, that's it. That's how we live, carving pools into the scrub-covered hills, forcing wild and domestic animals into uncomfortable proximity, then yelping with outrage when the animals act naturally.
I am no hater of cats. The one in the coyote's jaws, in fact, looks alarmingly like a tortoiseshell-coated companion that has shared my address (indoors) for a decade. But look at the city we've built, the water we've redirected, the habitats we've invaded. Obviously, we need to be reminded what was here first. "We built our city in the coyote's backyard," says a City of L.A. Animal Services flier. "We should adapt to the presence of the coyote."
The exhibition runs through Jan. 9. For the Natural History Museum — under new management since the arrival of President Jane Pisano two years ago — it's a $1.3-million calling card to announce its ambition to "inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds." No, they haven't turned into rabid crusaders over there — the idea, they say, is to inspire, not to preach — but they're doing more than dioramas and captions.
"When research says 84% of your visitors have access to the Internet, do you really have to give them all the textual information in the exhibition?" Vanda Vitali, executive producer of the show and vice president for public programming at the museum, said when I joined her in Exposition Park the other day for a second look at the show. "The world has changed. What they can't get [elsewhere] is the immersive experience." In the brainstorming for the exhibition, Vitali said, museum staffers held three round-table meetings and four community sessions over a year, inviting artists, politicians, environmentalists, poets, whoever might toss out an intriguing idea.
"All of the people who live in the foothills said, 'You know, I have coyotes in my backyard,' " Vitali recalled. "Everyone who lived in that region had lost a pet to coyotes."
Then it was up to lead curator Jonathan Spaulding, exhibit designer François Confino and others to translate those ideas.
"Exhibition design is like writing music. Every section needs to have its own character. Andante. Allegro," Vitali said.
Adagio con corpo del gatto, I thought to myself. And then I flashed back to a few of my own coyote moments, beginning with a dawn encounter in Joshua Tree National Park. I was cruising the park's main road in my car, camera in hand, looking for interesting light. Up stepped a coyote, hunting for breakfast — a national park coyote, undaunted by the boulder-sized beast slowly rolling its way. We each edged forward, then stopped. A nobler human would have hollered or clapped. But I stayed put and, perhaps 5 feet apart, eyeball to eyeball, we staged our own little staring contest, until I flinched and hit the gas.
Then I thought of my neighborhood, near Griffith Park, and the afternoon I saw something move on the grassy knoll across the street. A coyote, well fed and strolling in the sun. This one looked both ways, then flung itself to the ground and wriggled and wiggled its legs in the air. At 50 yards, the wriggling looked like an expression of pure animal joy on a sunny, unhungry day — but it was probably all about shedding fleas.
Vitali, who grew up in Canada, came to Los Angeles two years ago and lives on the coast, had no coyote moments to contribute. But someone on the museum team suggested that a swimming pool scene would bump up the color and the contrast between suburban and wild. And the team agreed that a mid-century house would make sense, hinting at the recent growth of the city. From there it was a short hop to the image by Julius Shulman.
But what to put in the coyote's mouth? For a while, the designers were leaning toward a pink poodle. In the end, museum taxidermist Tom Bovard prepared a road-killed coyote and cat for their close-up.
But look closely and you'll notice something missing. Bearing in mind that some of the museum's elementary school visitors are not yet devoted fans of "CSI," Bovard and company painted this three-dimensional picture without any blood. I didn't realize this until Vitali pointed it out, but you can, if you need to, imagine that the cat is just playing possum and that any second, it might spring free, rush through a cat door and demand that its dinner be immediately extracted from a can.
There. Turns out no animals were harmed in the making of this column. But nature and culture in greater Los Angeles are as mixed up as ever.
To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.