Where Nature Meets Culture

Over the last couple of years, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has done shows on Machu Picchu, chocolate and baseball. On March 14, it will turn its attention to a more immediate subject, the Los Angeles region, in an ambitious extravaganza called “L.A.: Light, Motion, Dreams.” “What we are trying to present is an overview through the prism of nature and culture and the relationship between the two,” says Vanda Vitali, vice president of public programs and the show’s executive producer. “It’s like an immersive documentary about Los Angeles. It touches on everything to get you to grasp the enormity of the city’s diversity, richness and potential. ‘Light’ stands for the splendid climate. ‘Motion’ stands for transformations to this region by successive cultures and occupations. ‘Dreams’ stands for dreams of a more harmonious existence with nature in the future.”

According to show curator Jonathan Spaulding, there are “two big stories” he and his colleagues wanted to tell about Los Angeles. “First, the transformation of the natural environment. What has happened to this place since it’s become this megalopolis: a story of habitat lost and biodiversity loss. Those sad tales and other little success stories. The other [theme] is a cultural story: L.A. as an international city and the cultural experiment it represents.”

The undertaking required an approach beyond the bones and beetles on a board many of us associate with natural history museums. The show offers sound and music; five video installations produced by Peter Kirby; and exhibit designer Francois Confino’s installation that joins a real-life diving board with a backlighted photo image of an archetypal backyard swimming pool based on a shot by photographer Julius Shulman. “We tried to introduce some humorous elements,” says Vitali. “It’s sad when exhibits are very, very serious.”

In addition to sections devoted to the title’s light, motion and dreams, others focus on features of the region’s natural setting--foothills, coast, plains and rivers. More than 400 objects and specimens from the museum’s permanent collection will appear throughout. In addition, Los Angeles artist Frank Romero is contributing a nearly 10-foot by 44-foot mural of the Los Angeles River created for the show. In keeping with the documentary conceit, Romero compares his view to that of a movie camera. “I look at stuff from up above,” he says. “It’s sweet that I have people riding their bikes or walking their dogs or pulling crawfish out of the river. But it’s a very strange idea for L.A. because no one used to take this river seriously.”


If this fossils-to-conceptual-art take on the city sounds like one of those James Michener epics that begin in the prehistoric ages, why not? The L.A. saga goes back a long way, and humans aren’t the only local fauna. “We certainly don’t want to suggest we have answers,” says Spaulding. “Maybe this city can be a place where we rethink how we relate to nature.”

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 763-DINO.