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Q&A: Jane Pisano is leaving L.A.'s Natural History Museum far brighter than she found it

Jane Pisano is leaving her post as president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County after a transformative 14-year tenure.

Jane Pisano is leaving her post as president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County after a transformative 14-year tenure.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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During her 14 years as president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Jane Pisano focused on “letting in the light,” she says, referring to the sweeping physical and philosophical renovations that took place during her tenure. When Pisano steps down, she will leave behind an entirely new institution.

Whereas the museum once boasted grandiose if somewhat static exhibits housed in dim halls, it has been made brighter and airier, more high-tech and interactive after a $135-million-plus reinvention steered by Pisano. The indoor-outdoor experience now includes 3½ acres of garden habitat, a new Dinosaur Hall and multiple areas for “citizen science,” where visitors can participate in experiments that, in some cases, extend to their backyards.

The renovations, completed in 2013, altered more than 60% of the museum’s indoor space — and changed the landscape of Pisano’s own life. The former dean of USC’s School of Public Administration, now in her final full week at the museum, ruminates on her time there while strolling through the gardens, thick with drought-tolerant grasses and wildflowers.

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With no background in science, why did you take a job helming the Natural History Museum? What were your first days there like?

I didn’t take this job to become a science expert; I took it because the institution was struggling. And I thought I could fix it. I thought: “L.A. deserves a world-class natural history museum.” And everything else has fallen into place.

My first day on the job, I cold-called [scientist and author] Jared Diamond. I got his number from somebody here, and it was his home number, so I got right through. I said, “You don’t know me, but I want you to know you changed my life.” When I read “Gun, Germs, and Steel,” it rekindled this whole interest and passion I had for science when I was in high school and then lost along the way. I became a much more avid reader of science. I thought: “I just have to tell him.” He was speechless. And we became friends.

What do you feel will be your legacy at the museum?

The nature gardens and all the programming and emphasis on urban biodiversity. That’s all new for the genre of natural history museums. It makes us a museum of nature as well as natural history. And it enables us to really bring our mission beyond the property itself and out into the community. If you have people who you’ve trained to be citizen scientists or visitors who are coming and looking at our chalkboards and learning about urban biodiversity, and then they go home and plant a garden, they’re making L.A. a better place to live, one garden at a time. It’s a whole avenue of scientific inquiry and civic participation that connects people to us even when they’re not here, and it has the promise of really making L.A. a more wonderful and appropriately green city.

Also, our new mission — it’s not typical. It’s all about the public we serve and inspiring wonder, discovery and responsibility. Some people say, “What? You mean it’s not about us? It’s not about the collection?” And the answer is, “Yeah, it is, but it’s about where our research and collections meets the visitor experience.”

How has your time at the museum changed you, personally?

It’s changed me — and my family. My grandchildren have grown up here. My husband comes to every single event he can. We’ve become so much more passionate about being stewards of the Earth. And so much more curious about all aspects of the natural world. In ways large and small, I feel connected to the world. We’re tearing out all our gardens and putting in a whole drought-tolerant system. It’s changed what my husband and I talk about, it’s changed us personally, and as a couple. The more you learn, you feel humbled and curious. And I think that experience isn’t rare. When I look at our visitors, the more they know, the more they understand and want to know.

Then why leave?

The work at the museum isn’t finished. There are at least 10 more years of heavy lifting. And I don’t have 10 more years! This is a good juncture. The museum is in such wonderful shape, the staff is terrific, the trustees are terrific, all the financials are in order. Attendance took a big jump up last year and then stabilized this year at about 1.1 million between the NHM and the Page Museum [at the La Brea Tar Pits]. It’s an ideal time to change leadership with someone who does have 10 more years to give.

What does some of that heavy lifting look like?

We conceived and transformed 60% of our public space, but we still have 40% to go. New galleries, we need to have an Oceans Hall, we need to have a hall that talks about the history from the Big Bang through the evolution of life on Earth — big issues. Redo the theater for movies, productions and lectures. And then we have the Page Museum. We’ve done a lot to improve the visitor experience there; we’ve let light in, given it a face-lift, put in a 3-D theater. We’ve made it an indoor-outdoor experience with tours of the tar pits. But we have to make a long-term decision about the building, which is going to be 40 years old in a couple of years. We have to decide if we’re going to fix it or build something new.

Other museums have made field trips to the Natural History Museum to see the changes. What do you think distinguishes it as pioneering?

Information and exhibition design. The [current] mummies show is an incredible example of that. A lot of people think dinosaurs are just for kids. We think dinosaurs are fascinating for people of all ages. When you walk through the Dinosaur Hall, that gallery is a very sophisticated piece of design that makes everybody feel at home. The same with information design. It’s not easy when you have everyone from small children to PhDs and you want them all to have a good experience.

And the proverbial “What’s next?”

Los Feliz! I’m gonna stay in my house! No, I have some travel plans — Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong with a group of former White House fellows. I have some book ideas. And I’ve been talking to USC, where I still remain a professor. I’m not going to do anything right away because I need to retool, but I’m going to stay involved in civic life.

When you return to the museum in, say, 10 years, what would you like to see?

Lots of activities. But what’d I’d really like to see is the whole urban nature movement in Los Angeles just take off, just explode throughout the city — where people are having conversations with their friends and neighbors about how many monarch butterflies are in their gardens or what they’re doing in those gardens, what it means to them. Extending the museum beyond the physical place is a really important objective. This will always be home base and the hub; but I want to see it become a movement in Los Angeles.

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