The Natural History Museum’s $75-million project, coming in 2024

The $75 million transformation of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County – a renovation and expansion project called the NHM Commons – is taking shape. The museum announced major updates to the project, including a new indoor-outdoor wing This includes a new entrance on the southwest side of the museum. The debut is planned 2024, one year later than originally planned.

The NHM Commons designed by the LA company Frederick Fisher & Partners with landscaping by Mia teacher Studio-MLA adds 60,000 square feet of space to the museum. Approximately 54,000 square feet of this is new construction and landscaping; 6,000 square meters are renovated area. The project includes an events plaza adjacent to the new entrance, a Welcome Center, a 400-seat multipurpose theater and an events space (replacing the Jean Delacour Auditorium with long shutters from the 1960s and featuring retractable seating for more flexibility). a second coffee shop on the ground floor and a new gift shop. There will also be several outdoor gathering spaces, including a small amphitheater and 9,500 square meters of new, sustainable planting.

“It’s the culmination of the work we’ve done over the past five to six years to strengthen our community partnerships, launch programs and raise community voices,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of Natural History Museum.

The project – both physical and conceptual – aims to better connect the museum to the community. To that end, the new entrance, which overlooks Exposition Park’s south lawn and the LA Coliseum, is made of transparent glass, allowing the activity inside to be visible to passers-by. That adjoining outdoor space is intended for serve as a kind of “front porch” and welcome visitors inside.

“The idea is that issues come from outside to inside — it’s a continuum,” says Bettison-Varga. “Me, [the architecture] is the physical manifestation of our strategic framework to be of, for and with Los Angeles.”

In addition, the museum established two advisory groups to guide its vision. The NHM Commons Native American Advisory Council will work with him Museum direction and studio MLA at the plaza entrance and surrounding landscaping with a view to honoring Native American communities and recognizing that Los Angeles is located on Native American land.

Its five members are Tima Lotah Link, cultural educator and Chumash textile artist (Schmuwich humash); L Frank Manriquez, an artist and activist (Tongva/Ajachmem/Rarámuri); archaeologist Desireé Reneé Martinez (Tongva, Ti’at Society); Mark Villasenor, Tribal Senator (Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians); and Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy Land Return Coordinator Samantha Morales Johnson, a digital illustrator, animator and painter (Gabrieleno-Tongva Band of Mission Indians).

“The idea is to have a recognition of land that is much more meaningful to First Nations people in Los Angeles than just a plaque on the wall,” says Bettison-Varga. “We really want there to be recognition that matters to the communities here.”

The 11-member NHM Commons Advisory Coalition will help steer new public programs and community initiatives. Members include Betty Avila, Executive Director of Self Help Graphics & Art; Katherine Yeom, executive director of Korean-American Family Services; and Paula Cizmar of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, Resident Playwright for Environmental Justice and Professor of Theatrical Practice in Dramatic Writing.

“To ensure that the NHM Commons programming — and the museum’s overall work — is doing what it’s supposed to do, we wanted to make sure we had a coalition of advisors who were really deeply involved with the community work,” Bettison-Varga said says.

With so many community leaders involved from so many different areas of LA, Bettison-Varga says the NHM Commons is in a sense “co-curated” by a number of community partners.

“We’re really using this as an opportunity to do a lot more in the space in the way of co-curating with community partners,” says Bettison-Varga. “So we’re trying to find the right mix of museum-initiated programs, co-curated programs, and community programs in this incredible space.”

The NHM Commons Welcome Center.

The NHM Commons Judith Perlstein Welcome Center looking west.

(From the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History)

The NHM Commons’ original opening date was fall 2023, but like so many construction projects, “COVID delays came into play,” says Bettison-Varga. After problems in the supply chain, labor shortages and slow permitting processes, the museum pushed back its opening to 2024. It broke ground in August, completed demolition and started work on the steel infrastructure. The topping-out ceremony, at which the last steel girder of the substructure will be fixed, is planned for May.

The cost of the project has also increased, mostly due to inflation, Bettison-Varga says, from $60 million to $75 million. But fundraising is “strong,” she says. The museum’s “Opening New Doors Campaign” for the NHM Commons, as well as the museum’s programming and equipment, have surpassed the $100 million mark. Almost $64 million of that is earmarked for construction costs.

In March 2020, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave the museum $15 million for the project. It also gave the green light to an additional $15 million that the museum received in December 2021. Major donors are the Annenberg Foundation and the Perlstein family, who have each donated $5 million to the museum; the Ahmanson Foundation and the Rose Hills Foundation, each giving $2 million; and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, which donated $1 million.

The museum currently waives admission fees at select times each week. But when the NHM Commons opens, several areas of the museum will be open to the public whenever the institution is open. These include, unsurprisingly, the café and gift shop, but also the Wallis Annenberg Lobby and the more than 5,000-square-foot Judith Perlstein Welcome Center in a renovated former exhibition hall. The Welcome Center will include several exhibitions.

At its premiere, the Welcome Center will feature “Gnatalie,” a rare, 70-foot long, green-colored, long-necked dinosaur skeleton. It is the first true specimen of its kind ever displayed on the West Coast, with around 80% of its bones not being replicas, and the first green dinosaur skeleton to be displayed anywhere in the world. Barbara Carrasco’s iconic mural LA History: A Mexican Perspective will also be on display there. A community exhibit wall, still in development, will feature “additional exhibits and storytelling,” according to Bettison-Varga.

Bettison-Varga considers the 43-part Carrasco work — which depicts the history of Los Angeles from prehistory through the city’s founding in 1781 through its bicentennial in 1981 — to be the “community mural” and the “Gnatalie” skeleton as a “community dinosaur”.

“Community” is the key word.

“The philosophy isn’t, ‘If we build it, they will come,'” says Bettison-Varga. “The philosophy was, ‘We need to have these intentional relationships and make sure that as we build, we have robust programs and partnerships that involve people in the work we’re doing and in the way they want it to be done.’ To make them feel part of it.”

“What does it mean to be a natural history museum today?” she adds. “It’s all about being with the community.” The Natural History Museum’s $75-million project, coming in 2024

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