Natural History Museum modernizes 1913 building, looks to the future


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Life-size dinosaur puppets roaming the halls of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are not all that’s going on at the Exposition Park institution. After years of retrofitting, restoring and renovating, the museum is gearing up to reopen its historic core -- a 1913 Beaux Arts structure designed by Hudson & Munsell that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the first phase of the $91-million project complete, plans are underway for inaugural exhibitions in renovated spaces. The rotunda, the hub of the original building, and one of its wings, the Age of Mammals hall, will open in summer 2010.


The rotunda, topped by a stained-glass, domed skylight, will be outfitted with display cases for a changing array of weird and wonderful objects -- bones, eggs and, yes, fur balls -- in the museum’s vast collections. The mammals installation, masterminded by Reich+Petch Design International and directed by Simon Adlam, will track the creatures’ evolution in response to climate change over 65 million years. Visitors will find a multimedia production including film footage and some of the museum’s star specimens: the Simi Valley mastodon, Kellogg’s sea lion and the La Brea horse and saber-toothed cat.

The Dinosaur Mysteries hall, on the opposite side of the rotunda, is expected to open in summer 2011 with an installation that addresses dinosaur questions that have sparked scientific research and the popular imagination.

Museum Director Jane Pisano and her staff are also planning ‘Under the Sun,’ an exhibition about California habitats and conservation issues, to open in 2012 in the 1913 building’s third wing. And they are looking ahead to 2013, when the museum will celebrate its centennial in the modernized historic building.

Interior spaces will have a decidedly new look, with original arched windows uncovered and stone barriers around balconies supplanted by glass. But much of the effort -- and expense -- of updating the old structure will be invisible. The biggest challenge, seismic retrofitting, was accomplished by hollowing and reinforcing exterior walls. More than 100 vertical shafts were cut through the walls, from the roof through the foundation, reinforced with steel rods and filled with high-strength polymer. The heavy concrete roof also had to be replaced with a stronger, lighter version made of carbon-fiber materials.

The museum has withstood dozens of earthquakes, but that’s no guarantee that the next big one wouldn’t do serious damage if precautions weren’t taken, says project manager Don Webb. The method used in the retrofit is not unique, he says, but the museum project may be the largest such application of the technology in the country.

-- Suzanne Muchnic