The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles has never been one to perpetuate the myth so many of us hold dear: that there is a dividing line between man and nature.
Humans are a part of nature, nature is a part of the city, and many of the museum's exhibits make a point of reminding us about the porous boundary between Los Angeles and the unconstructed environment in which it lies. Humans and our machinery are as much a part of the natural world as are bees and their hives, or birds and their nests.
This interplay — with the emphasis on “play” — is the star of NHM's new Nature Lab and adjacent garden, just opened to the public during the museum's 100th anniversary celbration, a weekend-long bash culminating in a much-anticipated concert with “de-evolution” theorists Devo headlining.
Last night, at what felt like an oversize version of the Museum's “First Fridays” event, youngsters, oldsters, and hipsters meandered through the museum's marble hallways, left hands sliding along polished brass banisters, right hands clutching cocktails. In the disco-lighted shadow of the museum's T-Rex and Triceratops skeletons, KCRW DJ's spun tunes and Amoeba Music sold swag, and there was a full bar in the Hall of North American Mammals.
The setup, in addition to the museum's 100th birthday party, was also the coming out party for the new entry garden, previously a parking lot and concrete walkway bordered by fountains that was pleasantly serviceable but didn't really invite lingering or evoke a sense of teeming life.
Andrew Cole, a museum member who lives a short distance away, was excited to see the asphalt and construction fences finally come down and reveal something “really beautiful.” Cole, a new father, also was looking forward to bringing his young son to the museum to enjoy the garden's playground-like elements, which include a sandbox where kids could scoop and filter sand prospector-style, an old-fashioned water pump and a nest-like shelter made entirely of willow branches, created by artists Leigh Adams, Dave Lovejoy and Jamie Banes.
The willow hut had a mystical ability: it seemed to inspire everyone who approached it to spontaneously take up yoga. No one who posed for a photo in front of the hut could just stand there smiling; the hut silently ordered all comers to sit in lotus position, or stand in tree pose, their fingers forming mudras. “It's because it feels so safe inside,” Adams explained, smiling from ear to ear as she delighted in watching an enchanted public enjoy her creation.
While the hut at first glance seems as organic and improvised as a bird's nest, every aspect of the structure is part of a plan. The hut's windows, for example — shaped like raindrops, to emphasize the importance of water in a dry climate — are placed to draw the viewers attention to different features of the landscape. One is placed at child height, another looks out on the museum's historic edifice above the rotunda, another draws the viewer's eye towards the museum's new glass entryway that faces Exposition Avenue. “Now I know how a bird feels in its nest,” one visitor told Adams. “Safe and protected.”
Around the corner from the native garden is an edible garden, created by Camille Cimino and Seed To Skillet author Jimmy Williams. Along a path of brick red decomposed granite, Cimino led a tour through blueberries (“a slam-dunk in So-Cal!”), rosemary and sections of plants grouped like a regional food history lesson: a Mexican garden with cilantro, peppers and onions; an American garden with corn, pumpkins, beans and squash; a French garden with haricots verts and artichokes; and an Asian garden filled with fragrant Thai basil.
Back inside the museum, in the space formerly known as the Discovery Center, there were more interactive exhibits like microscopes, spaces for drawing and touch screen displays about the natural habitat of L.A. Some were pleasant reminders, like the display of butterfly varieties found in Griffith Park, and some were not, like the exhibit about rats, whom, it was asserted, humans will always share quarters with.
Around nine o' clock, a John-Williams-like score boomed from the garden's sound system, and projected on white scrims wrapping the building's front was a video and slide show of the museum's century of history, during which generations of kids have come to this built-to-last institution for their best field trips, looking at the same dioramas that are still in place today. Visitors were also treated to a montage of the NHM's many film and TV cameos, of which Pretty Woman, Spider Man, Mad Men, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and MacGyver are just a few.
But the video, which started off interesting, ran about ten minutes longer than it should have, testing the audience's patience with ad infinitum repetitions of “Happy Birthday Natural History Museum!” that after several minutes began to provoke groans and shouts of, “De-VO! De-VO!” from a crowd eager to get on with the show.
Finally, the scrims fell away with a flourish, revealing the dramatically relocated fin whale skeleton, immense and levitating behind glass walls and backlit by a flashing, sparkling, fireworks-like light display. Shortly after, Devo finally took the stage, thrilling the many flowerpot-wearing Devo-tees in the audience who — gardens, dioramas, and history be damned — were just here to see their band.
Booking Devo, the band born directly out of the Kent State massacre, for this gig was either a terribly ironic accident or a stupendous stroke of genius, and of course one hopes for the latter. Although they too might be considered dinosaurs by some, the band, fronted by Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, still felt as sparkly and exciting as the newly rehoused fin whale, which seemed to crane its neck to catch their show. Like the museum's Tyrannosaurus, Devo's teeth only seem to sharpen with age, and somehow, miraculously, never seem like a nostalgia act.
Their cohorts the Rolling Stones, for example, though still powerful, play a heavily blues-influenced style of music that has always hearkened back to an earlier age. But Devo's uniquely Devo sound hearkens back only to nukes and punk rock robots of a forever impending computer-controlled doom. Are we not men?
It's a wonder that the century-old Natural History Museum still feels as hip as it does, and also a wonder that the pop oddballs Devo has as many hits as they do: “Mongoloid,” “Whip It,” “Jerkin' Back And Forth,” “Freedom of Choice,” “That's Good,” “Girl U Want,” “Peek-A-Boo,” just to name a few. But the show's climax came when they played “Beautiful World,” with Mothersbaugh monologuing in his Booji Boy mask about the stuffed animals in the museum as he threw handfuls of chips, popcorn, and candy to the live animals in the audience.