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Museum Soon to Be History : Culture: County satellite showcasing natural world will vacate Media City mall due to financial pressure, weak attendance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city is about to lose its museum-in-a-mall. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has notified Burbank that it plans to vacate its $2-million mini-museum on the northern edge of the Media City Center.

Natural History’s decision to pull out comes a little more than two years after the Burbank satellite opened with much fanfare and a show of giant mechanical insects, some the size of compact cars. As many as 70,000 people a year have visited the shopping-convenient facility to see exhibits on bats, whales, Ice Age mammals and Native American art.

In a letter dated July 21, James L. Powell, director of the county museum, said the decision to leave the site was necessary “due to the budget and staff constraints under which the Foundation [the Natural History Museum’s nonprofit fund-raising and support body] must operate and the limited attendance at the Burbank branch museum.”

Powell said the county museum had decided “its mission can be met more effectively by reallocating to better-utilized programs the Foundation resources currently committed to the Media Center facility.” The Burbank site is to be vacated in six months.

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Headquartered in Exposition Park, the Natural History Museum has been battered in recent years by drastic cuts in county support and by internal turmoil. Last month, Deputy Director Marcus A. Rodriguez was charged with embezzling $2.1 million from the county museum.

Burbank is one of the museum’s four satellites, including the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, the Petersen Automotive Museum in West Los Angeles, and the William S. Hart Museum in Santa Clarita. Burbank is the only branch threatened with closure.

In his letter, Powell said he would be happy to discuss alternatives to leaving with city officials and the Alexander Haagen Co., the Manhattan Beach developer of the Media City Center. To obtain city permits to build the mall at 3rd Street and Magnolia Boulevard, the Haagen Co. agreed to include public space. The developer worked with the Natural History Museum and Burbank officials to bring sabertooth skulls and other museum treasures to the suburban mall.

Powell was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But Natural History Museum spokesman Brett Henry said the decision was not final. “This is not a for-sure thing,” he said. “It just opens the doors for the museum and the city of Burbank to look at various alternatives.”

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Steve Helvey, Burbank’s assistant city manager, said no one from the museum had told him the decision was tentative. “We’re certainly treating it as a definitive closure,” Helvey said. “I would be surprised if they had a change of heart at this point.”

Helvey said he regretted the loss of the Burbank satellite. “We’re sorry they decided to give up so quickly. We’re not sure they gave it a chance to survive.”

Helvey said he intended to contact Powell to clarify the museum’s statement that the decision was not final.

The city of Burbank has a 50-year lease on the facility, which it sublet to the Natural History Museum. Helvey and other city officials toured the mini-museum yesterday to reacquaint themselves with the space, almost 12,000 square feet used as a gallery, hands-on discovery center and museum shop.

“We’re sorry the museum couldn’t make a go of it,” Helvey said. But he added that the city would be happy to have the facility, whose amenities include ample covered parking. “We’re going to put some civic functions in there,” Helvey said. Planning has just begun, but civic clubs, performing arts groups, even a children’s museum might be appropriate tenants, he said.

Mary Ann Dunn, who has been the administrator of the satellite museum since it opened on May 1, 1993, was dismayed by the decision. “We were never given the kind of support we needed and never given the opportunity to establish ourselves,” she said.

Although the mall museum served thousands of visitors, including many school groups, attendance has fallen from a high of 70,000 during its first year to 50,000 this year. The Northridge quake was a major setback, closing the museum for six months for repairs, Dunn said.

She speculated that attendance was also hurt because the relatively small museum had to close down for several weeks before each show to dismantle the old exhibit and install the new one.

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“People didn’t seem to understand that we only have one exhibit gallery here,” she said. “We still have people coming in looking for the bugs, looking for the bats, looking for the whales.” The current show is an exhibit of recent Native American art, featuring a birchbark canoe and a full-size tepee.

Dunn expressed hope that the city or some other entity would step in to save the Burbank museum. She estimated that it costs about $200,000 a year to operate, including salaries for three full-time employees.

Dunn believes that Natural History Museum officials would find a way to stay in Burbank “if they could.” But she fears that the Burbank satellite had no strong advocate to argue its case with museum officials in Downtown Los Angeles. “There’s nobody at the decision-making level from this community to speak for this community,” she said.

“Burbank and the surrounding area will be the poorer if they lose this,” she said. “This is really a gem.”


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