‘Age of Mammals’ at the Natural History Museum

How do you squeeze 65 million years of mammalian history into an eye-popping, mind-bending, crowd-pleasing exhibition?

Not easily, even if you have a stellar collection of prehistoric specimens and a talented team of curators, scientists and designers who like to tell big stories with the help of interactive technology. Or if the showcase is part of a $107-million architectural restoration project.

But after years of planning, seismic retrofitting, construction and fine tuning, “Age of Mammals” will open July 11 at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park.

It’s a giant step for a 97-year-old institution in the process of reinventing itself. The sweeping exhibition — tracking the evolution of mammals through epochal changes in geology and climate — will fill the dramatically renovated northern wing of the museum’s original building. The adjacent rotunda, meticulously restored to its former glory, will offer a provocative installation of historical curiosities and paintings of mammals through the ages by American artist Charles R. Knight.

“July 11 will be like a coming-out party for us,” says Jane Pisano, president and director of the museum. “This is an opportunity for us to re-present this institution to the public in a stunningly restored architectural space. We have done a lot of internal work, asking ourselves about the role of a natural history museum in the 21st century and what difference we can make in our community. These new galleries are the result of that.”

Much of the transformation is physical. In the “Age of Mammals” hall, a concrete roof has been replaced with a lighter, carbon-fiber structure including a skylight. Walls have been hollowed and reinforced with steel rods and polymer. The original arched windows have been uncovered, and stone barriers around the mezzanine have been replaced with glass.

The finished product is an airy, light-filled, classical structure that suddenly seems contemporary. But most of all, it’s an exhibition space meant to implement the museum’s new mission: “To inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds.”

“The traditional mission of the Natural History Museum was to be a steward of the past, to help people understand some of the big issues and questions from the time that life began,” Pisano says. “We have added present and future dimensions to give visitors a more relevant and compelling experience.”

With specimens such as a 50,000-year-old mastodon, unearthed in a Simi Valley real estate development in 2001, it’s relatively easy for the museum to inspire wonder. “The wow factor,” in the words of Simon Adlam, director of exhibit production.

“Starting with the ‘Age of Mammals’ was no accident,” Pisano says. “We are building on the strongest collection we have here. Many of the fossils are from Rancho La Brea. And telling the bigger story of plate tectonics and climate change in association with the evolution of mammals in the last 65 million years is something we are especially well equipped to do.”

Dictionaries define mammals as the highest class of vertebrates, consisting of man and all other animals that nourish their young with milk. They have mammary glands; their skin is usually covered, to some degree, with hair; they are warm-blooded and share a number of other physical characteristics.

In the exhibition, a parade of skeletons and taxidermic creatures that once wandered the Earth includes a giant jaguar, an enormous horned animal known as a “thunder beast” and a hoofed mammal whose descendents eventually abandoned land for the sea and turned into whales.

In one display, a modern stuffed cheetah is posed as if running, exactly like a skeletal specimen nearby. Marine mammal skeletons, partly encased in mesh forms indicating contours of their bodies, are suspended from the ceiling, as if swimming.

In sharp contrast to the ancient specimens, up-to-the-minute interactive kiosks encourage visitors to do on-the-spot research about mammals on display, compare them with other animals or tap into the museum’s database. The central media panel, mounted high above eye level and conceived as a sort of movie trailer, spells out the exhibition’s big ideas: “Continents move. Climates change. Mammals evolve.” Images in the background depict the Earth in flux, with shifting land masses, weather patterns and environmental conditions.

If the main floor is the “wow” of the exhibition, the mezzanine is the “how,” Adlam says. In keeping with the museum’s desire to inspire discovery, displays on the upper level explore “how we know what we know,” he says. Teeth and bones help scientists identify mammals, determine what they ate and how they behaved.

Also on the mezzanine is the skeleton of a paleoparadoxia, a mysterious beast that lived on Southern California’s coastline 10 million to 12 million years ago. Part of an extinct order of mammals, it’s a four-legged animal with eyes on the top of its head, like a hippopotamus, but closely related to elephants and manatees. Videos displayed on a pair of media stations document the discovery and removal of the prehistoric beast just 12 years ago from an Orange County development site that is now a golf course.

Nearby, a series of murals draws attention to other places where fossils have been found: eastern Ventura County, the Los Angeles basin under the sea, Red Rock Canyon and the La Brea Tar Pits.

“What on earth?,” the exhibition in the rotunda, also delves into the process of discovery, but with a light touch. Perplexing oddities, such as a tooth whorl from an old shark, are elegantly installed in state-of-the-art cases, with no identification. Visitors who walk around to the back of the cases find “what on earth” the objects are, along with thought-provoking questions.

As for third part of the mission, inspiring responsibility, there’s a taxidermic polar bear at the close of “Age of Mammals.”

“It’s the poster child of global warming,” says John Long, vice president of research and collections. The arctic beast, disappearing along with its icy habitat, is also a sort of call to action at the end of an exhibition designed, as he says, “to explain what happened over 65 million years, why it happened, where humans fit into that and what it means to us today.”

The museum itself has gone through a considerable evolution. Originally called the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art and designed by L.A. architects Frank Hudson and William A.D. Munsell, it opened in 1913, a year before L.A.'s Southwest Museum, which was chartered in 1907. Over the years, the Exposition Park institution’s T-shaped brick building expanded into a patchwork behemoth and the art division became the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.

Today, the Natural History Museum operates on an annual budget of $28.2 million, half of which comes from the county, and attracts about 500,000 visitors a year. A $115-million campaign stalled last year, but Pisano says it’s back on track — “well over the 50% mark and moving.”

With a collection of more than 35 million objects in the broad territory of natural and cultural history, the museum is an active research center and a magnet for school tours. But as it approaches its 100th birthday, museum leaders yearn to turn what’s widely perceived as a stodgy old fixture into an exciting destination.

“Our biggest challenge is to get people here,” Pisano says. “When I have conversations with people who haven’t been here in a long time, there are no words I can say that will erase an image in their minds. But I can say, ‘Come and let me show you.’ That is always eye-opening.”

Reincarnations of two major segments of the original, three-wing building will surely boost attendance. That’s merely the beginning, Pisano says. Next summer, “Dinosaur Mysteries” will open in another wing of the 1913 building and an adjacent gallery. In December 2012, “Under the Sun,” an exhibition about the natural and cultural history of Southern California, will be inaugurated. And a recent announcement detailed a $30-million plan to develop 3.5 acres of “urban wilderness experiences and exhibits” along Exposition Boulevard.

The outdoor development will reflect the concept of responsibility in the museum’s mission, Pisano says. “It’s all about understanding nature so that you can be a good steward.”