New Natural History Museum Envisioned


Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History officials confirmed Wednesday that they are planning to embark on an ambitious fund-raising effort to build a new, state-of-the-art facility to replace the cramped and aging structure operating in Exposition Park near downtown.

After witnessing the recent boom in local civic building construction, officials of the nationally recognized museum have been quietly laying the groundwork for what they hope will be still another modern cultural landmark for Los Angeles.

“We’ve got a new cathedral, we’ve got a new sports arena, we’ve got a new science museum and a new Getty Center. The only thing we don’t have is a new history museum,” said James Powell, president and director of the museum.


“It can hardly be surprising that we’re thinking about this; the building doesn’t really fit our needs anymore,” Powell said in an interview. “We have 33 million specimens, many of them priceless. We need to think for the long term and make sure we’re protecting them.”

Powell said museum officials and the museum’s nonprofit foundation already have raised about $2 million in seed money, contracted with an internationally renowned exhibit designer and plan to go forward with plans to raise as much as $200 million for the new museum.

The museum’s board of trustees has not yet voted to do so, in part because it wants to decide first whether to stay in Exposition Park or go elsewhere in the county, said Powell and county officials.

The museum is owned by Los Angeles County and Powell serves at the behest of the county Board of Supervisors, which funds as much as half of the facility’s $23-million-plus budget. The rest of the museum’s operating budget comes from money raised by the museum and its nonprofit foundation, which would raise nearly all of the money for any new museum, Powell and others said.

Museum officials have quietly contacted county administrators to see whether other county properties--and private properties--could be made available for a new museum site, including a location across the street from the site of the future Walt Disney Concert Hall near the county courthouse downtown.

Powell said museum officials have looked at about 34 sites all around Los Angeles County, from Santa Clarita to Pomona to Long Beach to Marina del Rey. “We’ve studied them and talked about them but we haven’t settled on any particular one,” Powell said. “Certainly, [staying in] Exposition Park is very high on our list and we may decide to stay there. But we want to do our due diligence and make sure we choose the best possible site in the county.”


Moving the hugely popular museum could prove controversial, particularly among advocates of a fledgling cultural hub at Exposition Park, home of the California Science Center. That museum, formerly known as the Museum of Science and Industry, opened in February 1998 to much fanfare, and science center officials hope to expand the facility in the coming years by adding an environmental science center and other features.

“A new and improved Natural History Museum would be wonderful,” science center Senior Vice President Leonard Aube said. “It would strengthen the entire park as a premier family destination.”

The county Board of Supervisors would have to approve a decision to replace the museum. Powell said museum officials “hope to gain their support, morally and financially. We have and will continue to keep the Board of Supervisors closely apprised of our plans.”

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she supports the notion of building a new museum.

“They have to rebuild,” said Burke, who represents the district that includes the museum.”

“I would love to see them stay at Exposition Park,” Burke said, adding that a good alternative would be for the museum to move to “museum row” on Wilshire Boulevard, where the county Museum of Art is located.

The museum’s 45 trustees would also have to approve the decision and the ambitious fund-raising effort. The trustees--who include business and civic leaders and county representatives--met Wednesday and discussed the matter in private, but took no action.

Powell said a formal vote is expected at the trustees’ quarterly meeting in March. “I’m anticipating that they will” approve it, Powell said. “There is a lot of support for it and no one is saying we shouldn’t do it.”


Besides its main campus at 900 Exposition Blvd., the museum has three satellite facilities--the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, the Petersen Automotive Museum and the William S. Hart Museum.

In anticipation of the fund-raising effort, museum officials have indicated an interest in divesting the Petersen Museum, a nationally renowned facility that houses vintage cars and auto lore. On Wednesday, the trustees ordered a museum negotiating committee to try to finalize an agreement under which the county would relinquish control of the museum to publishing magnate Robert Petersen, who would create a foundation to run the facility.

If and when the new natural history complex is built, Powell said, it will help bring such museums into the modern era, complete with the newest technologies. There are few such major facilities and all of them are aging--most notably the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“There has not been a major natural history museum built in the United States in a long time,” said Powell.

Opened in 1913, the museum is considered a national leader in exhibitions, education and research. Its collection of specimens and artifacts covers 4.5 billion years of Earth history--everything from dinosaur bones and fossils of extinct animals to gems and minerals, Native American and pre-Columbian cultures, exotic mammals and California, Southwest and American history. It also boasts an interactive discovery center and an insect zoo.

Spokeswoman Chris Hills said that “with today’s MTV generation, you have to present your exhibits and collections very differently.”