Natural History Museum’s First Fridays series: caught between rock and bones

Going out on a Friday night usually means a quest for mindless fun — unless, that is, the quest leads to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s popular First Fridays series, where the fun is decidedly more mindful.

The series, which concludes its season Friday, combines museum tours and lectures with live rock bands and DJs, transforming a grade-schooler’s favorite field-trip destination into a one-stop night life and culture spot.

Su Oh, the director of programs at the museum, described First Fridays as “a place where you can get your intellectual content, your social interaction and your art content.”

The closing program features a tour exploring the museum’s thought-provoking “What on Earth?” installation, a discussion with paleontologist Luis Chiappe about the link between dinosaurs and birds, and musical performances by the indie-rock supergroup Gayngs and the minimal solo project Dirty Beaches.


On a given night, First Fridays attracts a mix of teenagers, college and post-college types, and older audiences. Visitors take advantage of a rare opportunity to lose themselves among the museum’s dioramas while bobbing their heads to music, or chat up curators and scientists while having a drink. Whether they come for the music, the lecture or just a unique experience, they tend to have one thing in common.

“I think this is an event for adults with a curious mind,” Oh said.

When she took over the series four years ago, Oh, who has a music industry background, started refining the sound of First Fridays, booking buzz bands as well as established artists. Past performers have included the Tallest Man on Earth, Atlas Sound, the Mountain Goats and DJ Z-Trip.

As the series has progressed, Oh hasn’t felt the need to play up any sort of thematic link between performers and lecturers. Her focus is the quality of the music.

She figured the sly smooth-rock stylings of Gayngs — a 25-plus-member collective including neo-folkster Justin Vernon, electro-dance dudes from Solid Gold and project mastermind Ryan Olson — would be a fun, upbeat way to wrap up the season. The wistful, fuzzed-out sounds of Dirty Beaches should be strangely resonant in those long halls of bones and taxidermy.

“I care more about it being a very interesting artist that can enjoy this environment,” Oh said.

First Fridays lectures have similarly evolved. Whereas they once highlighted specific exhibits, those displays are now used as jumping-off points for broader discussions.

This year’s season, the Nostradamus Edition, explores what modern science tells us about the past and how it might predict the future. It asks, for example, whether the fate of the dinosaurs can give us insight to our own existence and what may be in store for us.


Chiappe, the director of the museum’s Dinosaur Institute, will draw on his years of research to discuss what he calls one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of dinosaur science: “the realization that dinosaurs are not extinct — that birds are the living descendants of dinosaurs.”

The idea dates back some 150 years and has fallen in and out of favor since then. Chiappe will examine how multiple lines of evidence support the idea that today’s birds are descended from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called coelurosaurs.

Some evidence is old-school: Dinosaur fossils display skeletal features present in birds, such as the existence of a wishbone. Other revelations are the results of high-tech tools such as CT scans and genome studies, which show similar brain and cell structures in dinosaurs and birds.

The science supporting the dinosaur-bird link has guided the content of the museum’s new Dinosaur Hall, a large-scale permanent exhibition opening in July. The hall features more than 300 fossils, 20 articulated skeletons and multimedia content, much of which Chiappe and his team collected on expeditions throughout the world.


What this research tells us, Chiappe said, is “that these animals that we thought were extinct are not, in that we have thousands of species of living dinosaurs flying all around.”

The point is not to compare an extinct Tyrannosaurus rex with a local seagull. But, Chiappe said, “Looking at the present, you can understand the past much better.”

This kind of encounter is exactly what First Fridays is all about: thought-provoking science mashed up with drinks and danceable beats. The past and the present, a lecture and a concert, dinosaur bones and turntables — as Oh said, “Where else are you going to have that kind of combo?”