Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum Is A Gem

Tuesday, August 28, 2018 - by Scott S. Smith

The Natural History Museum in downtown Los Angeles is most famous for its spectacular exhibits of 20 complete dinosaurs (as well as 300 fossils). The collection was completely revamped a few years ago, featuring new visuals (painted and digital) and interactive technology to help visitors understand what the creatures looked like when alive and what their world was really like for the 185 million years that It lasted. There are also adjacent examples of prehistoric mammals. Dino Fest Sept. 29-30, 2018 will host world-renowned experts to discuss recent fossil discoveries and their importance, as well as an opportunity to see some rare items.

NHM is also highly regarded for its success in educating school kids on the wonders of nature with its timeless dioramas of mammals and birds in their habitats, live animals at the Nature Lab, an insect zoo, and the Butterfly Pavilion (which ends Sept. 3). 

The museum also has an under-appreciated collection of ancient Native American artifacts from the entire Western Hemisphere. Some are currently displayed in a non-traditional way, the Visible Vault (in the second level passage between birds and mammals), showing some of these treasures as they are in their protected settings to avoid damage, while using dramatic lighting that gives one a sense of how objects were seen as sacred. As always in museums, it’s helpful to take the time to read or listen to the explanatory commentaries, rather than just gliding through to glance at items.

Somehow, I have always missed the Gem and Mineral Hall, a couple of relatively small rooms off to the side, though I was impressed with some specimens at the entrance. Rocks just didn’t sound that interesting, but I learned that it is filled at any given time with 2,000 specimens, out of a collection of 150,000 from all over the globe. I decided to make this a priority on this visit. There are a lot of informative exhibits, such as on the history of man’s use of gold and the differences between meteorites, as well as films and graphics to help visitors to understand the origins and makeup of each mineral. Most importantly, the extraordinary variation and jaw-dropping beauty of the specimens are masterpieces compared with any contemporary art (though one room brings the raw rocks together with the skills of jewelers to show what craftsmanship can produce).

As with all photography, nothing can really provide the viewer of the images with the three-dimensional, 360-degree experience of being in the presence of the real thing. But these images provide some sense of what is offered. One shows the glorious breadth of red rhodochrosite on quartz (from Colorado, pyrite (fool’s gold) on top (Peru), turquoise and white microline (Colorado), and dark green malachite (Arizona). I’ll leave it to the editor to choose some of the others.

If you haven’t been in a few years or ever, put this high on your edutainment to-do list. The Natural History Museum is open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., which a few holiday exceptions. Plan to get into the area early, in case there are sports or other events at nearby venues, so you have plenty of time to find reasonably-priced parking (right now, some of the lots are under construction, as noted on the website, which explains how to get there by bus, Metro Rail, and the Expo Line). 

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