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Looking to brighter days, Natural History Museum wins county funding for a makeover

A rendering of Frederick Fisher & Partners' plans for NHM Commons, which will provide a new entrance to the Natural History Museum.
(Frederick Fisher and Partners/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is getting a front porch: On Tuesday the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — through a virtual meeting — unanimously approved plans for the museum’s 75,000-square-foot renovation and addition and released $15 million toward the project, which includes a new entrance to the museum.

Supervisors also green-lighted an additional $15 million to come at a later date.

The vote, delayed several weeks, came as the county braces for what is expected to be a spike in coronavirus cases and a health crisis of historic proportions.

“We wouldn’t proceed if we believed that it was imprudent,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in an email interview. Los Angeles County is “a major regional driver of the state’s creative economy. The county is currently focused on the immediate challenges facing all Angelenos, so when we emerge from this current crisis, it will be more important than ever not to delay having a community hub like this to bring people together with nature and culture,” he said.

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L.A.'s largest nonprofit theater company suspends the rest of the season, including its LeBron James play “King James.” It projects a massive deficit.

The $60-million NHM Commons project also includes a new 400-seat theater and event space to replace the now-closed 1960 Jean Delacour Auditorium, a second cafe and outdoor gathering spaces. About 53,000 square feet of the project will be renovated space, and 22,000 square feet is new construction.

The goal is to “really open up a front porch to the south lawn and the space between us and the Coliseum and embrace that community-facing role,” museum Director Lori Bettison-Varga said in an interview weeks ago, before the novel coronavirus closed museums across the region. At the time she added that she hoped the space eventually could become “a community hub, a convening space, a place for dialogue, for shared experience.”

Groundbreaking and opening dates remain a question mark. The museum hasn’t set a construction timeline as it navigates the COVID-19 crisis.

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“Clearly, the timing of this much-appreciated approval by the county is tempered by the concerns about our public health and economic uncertainties in our country,” Bettison-Varga said recently by email, adding that the museum would be “monitoring the developing situation as we make plans for the future.”

The architecture firm Frederick Fisher & Partners will steer the NHM Commons project, with landscape design by Mia Lehrer’s Studio-MLA.

Fisher has said transparency and connection are central themes. The new southern-facing glass facade will better integrate the museum into an evolving Exposition Park, positioning it to maximize foot traffic from the nearby Expo Line Metro station as well as the $1-billion Lucas Museum of Narrative Art rising next door to the west and aiming for late 2021 completion.

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“The vast majority of our visitors will come in through that southwest corner, and we’ll be able to introduce them, in this space called the Welcome Center, which will be free,” Bettison-Varga said. “Anyone can come in and see that we’re an institution that does nature, history, culture.”

Ridley-Thomas called the museum “the heart of Exposition Park since it opened in 1913” and said the NHM Commons project will allow for even greater access to the museum’s collections and scientific research.

“We’re proud to support the institution as it continues to transform and truly become a community hub for the broadest audience to engage with their rich collections and programs,” he said by email.

Barbara Carrasco with sections of her mural, "L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective," as it was being installed at Union Station in L.A. in 2017.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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The Natural History Museum also announced that it has acquired artist Barbara Carrasco’s mural “L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective,” which it exhibited from March 2018 to August 2019.

Carrasco created the 43-panel, 80-foot-long piece — a history of Los Angeles from prehistoric times through the city’s 1781 founding to 1981, the city’s bicentennial, for which she painted it. It was commissioned by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which censored the work when Carrasco refused to paint over 14 images that the agency felt were controversial. The mural sat in storage for nearly a decade.

Now the work, which Bettison-Varga called “a statement of L.A. history through a Mexican perspective,” will hang prominently in the museum’s Welcome Center.

“Barbara’s mural is colorful, it’s vibrant, but more importantly, it tells the story of the rich diversity of the founding of Los Angeles,” Bettison-Varga said. “We have an L.A. history collection and we have an exhibition called ‘Becoming Los Angeles.’ So this is a part of our DNA, it is who we are.”

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In 2013 the museum completed a decade-plus, $151-million reinvention, led by former Director Jane Pisano. That project renovated or repurposed 60% of the public space and included the addition of the Otis Booth Pavilion and 3.5 acres of gardens. The NHM Commons project is the first step in a 10-year plan that also includes a redesign of the museum’s second location, the La Brea Tar Pits and the museum there.

The lead donors to the NHM Commons project are the Annenberg Foundation and the Perlstein family, which each gave $5 million.

The Hammer Museum layoffs come on the same day as staff reductions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with coronavirus closures looking to drag on.


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