June 13, 2013
When the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County launched its recent renovation, one of the goals was to make room for more science. Turns out it also made room for more scientists—of the backyard amateur variety, no lab coat required.
With the addition of the new Nature Lab and Nature Gardens as part of its centennial celebration, the museum’s growing involvement in so-called “citizen science” projects has gained new prominence, enlisting Southern Californians by the thousands in projects to catalogue the region’s biodiversity.
From insect counts to inventories of freeway roadkill, the museum has more than a dozen initiatives that are either ongoing or in the works now in which the public is playing a key role in the study of wildlife in Los Angeles County.
“It’s like crowdsourcing, and it can be an amazing resource,” says Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science and live animals at the museum.
Also known as participatory science, citizen science has become increasingly common as technology has made it easier for scientists, professional and amateur, to share observations and collaborate.
“In some ways, it isn’t new,” says Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum, noting that volunteers at the NHM’s Page Museum have been helping process fossils for many years. “But with the Internet and smart phones and other digital devices, anyone can, say, photograph an organism and send it over the net to be included in scientific research. And people of all ages can help that way.”
Worldwide projects, such as the extraterrestrial life site SETI@Home, and the ornithology database eBird, have been reaching out to the public for more than a decade, and the Natural History Museum has been among the local pioneers of the concept. As far back as 1994, for instance, museum ornithologists enlisted the public in a study of feral parrots in Southern California.
The California Parrot Project, which is still ongoing, asked birdwatchers to let the study’s organizers know about local parrot sightings, and eventually yielded one of the first reliable counts of the numbers—upwards of a dozen species—of parrots breeding in the wild here, says Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the museum.
“It was extremely primitive—we’d mail out newsletters,” says Garrett. “But all this research from the mid-1990s gave us a baseline to figure out whether these populations are expanding or contracting now.”
Of the museum’s current batch of citizen science projects, the oldest is the 11-year-old Spider Survey, which asks the public to collect spiders in their homes and gardens, take down some data and bring or send what they find to the museum, Higgins says.
“At the time, it was the cutting-edge thing,” she remembers. “We launched it in 2002 at the museum’s Bug Fair, and the first week, a thousand spiders came in.”
Since then, some 6,000 spiders have been sent into the museum from throughout Los Angeles County; among the project’s findings was the first sighting of a brown widow spider in L.A.
“We’re a port city with people and goods coming and going on a daily basis, and with them, creatures sometimes hitch a ride,” Higgins explains.
Other citizen science projects have yielded even more exciting data. In 2010, Will and Reese Bernstein, a father and son from Porter Ranch, submitted a photo of a tiny reptile they’d seen at a backyard dinner party to the museum’s Lost Lizards of Los Angeles project. The critter turned out to be the first documented discovery of a Mediterranean House Gecko in L.A.
Although the non-native gecko (also known as Hemidactylus turcicus) has been spotted in the southeast United States, the L.A. sighting was so significant that the Herpetological Review plans to publish the finding this fall, says Pauly: “So Reese Bernstein, who is 12 years old now, will already have published a paper in a scientific journal.”
In April, the Lost Lizards project turned up yet another out-of-state reptile, an Indo-Pacific Gecko that was found in a backyard in Torrance. The project has been so successful, in fact, that it’s being expanded to include amphibians.
“Maybe you see a turtle at the park, or an alligator lizard in your yard, or maybe a salamander in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says Pauly. “You submit a photograph of it to our project, and that data will be available to scientists for generations to come.”
Coming up will be the citizen science component of Bioscan, a 3-year look at, among other things, the diversity of Los Angeles insects. Project Coordinator Dean Pentcheff is looking for a homeowners willing to host bug traps in their backyards and volunteers willing to sift through the take, sorting beetles from butterflies. A special side project in August will count bugs drawn to porchlights.
“We’re about three months in,” says Pentcheff, “and already we’ve found new species unknown to science.”
Pauly, the herpetologist, says such projects are especially important in places like Los Angeles County because the interface between the wilderness and the expanding urban landscape is on the cutting-edge of science these days.
“When you ask people here where they go to see nature, they say things like, ‘Sequoia’ or ‘Anza Borrego.’ But we’re surrounded by incredible diversity, and you don’t even have to leave L.A.”
May 30, 2013
Los Angeles was a hard-partying hick town when top-hatted civic leaders opened its first museum, toasting it with water from the then-day-old Los Angeles Aqueduct. The fairground where the new landmark stood had been a nest of saloons and gamblers. L.A. was so culturally young that, for its first acquisition, the museum touted a goldfinch nest from the San Gabriel River bottom.
But a century can make such a difference.
On June 9, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will kick off its centennial with a day and night of hoopla in the rowdy ex-fairground that is now called Exposition Park. The festivities—with kid-friendly activities, food trucks, garden tours, live music, scientists and a nighttime concert by DEVO—will not only honor one of the nation’s largest and best-known natural history museums, but also will mark a milestone in the decade-long renovation and restoration.
The museum’s hallmark 65-foot fin whale will welcome guests from the top of a dramatic new glass entrance. Two Expo Line Metro stops will ferry visitors who prefer to arrive via L.A.’s burgeoning mass transit system.
A 3.5-acre Nature Garden will blossom outside a companion, state-of-the-art Nature Lab, where visitors can study wildlife, see it in action and then collaborate with science lovers region-wide in crowdsourced “citizen science” projects. Nearby, the museum’s acclaimed new Dinosaur Hall and award-winning Age of Mammals exhibits, both already opened, will be joined in July with the unveiling of the renovation’s final piece, “Becoming Los Angeles,” a permanent installation on the development of Southern California.
Meanwhile, visitors will be able to get a local history fix in the halls and rotunda of the 1913 building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and which has been restored and seismically strengthened.
“If you haven’t visited the Natural History Museum in a while, you should be prepared to find a vastly different institution,” says President and Director Jane Pisano. “This is a museum that has transformed itself.”
Pisano says the remodel arose from a change of philosophy at the museum.
“The old philosophy was very typical of natural history museums everywhere,” she says. “It was all about us—how we do research, how we take care of collections—and we changed that mission to focus on the visitor.”
The new aim, she says, is not to be “a book on a wall,” but to inspire wonder and a sense of discovery and responsibility in those who come to the museum. “We were doing a good job on wonder, but not so well on discovery and least well on inspiring a sense of responsibility for the natural world.”
Nor, she says, was the museum working as well as it could with Southern California’s natural landscape.
“There are very few cities that have the kind of climate we have,” she noted. So with the help of a new, county-funded garage that has consolidated parking, acres of paved land were transformed into wildlife habitat and gardens. Meanwhile, the building’s grand architecture was tweaked to create an easier flow between indoor and outdoor wonders.
Now visitors can take in the museum’s longstanding highlights—the dinosaur bones, the marine fossils—but also enjoy workshops led by master gardeners in the edible garden and unleash their kids in a “Get Dirty Zone.” The remodel also has set the stage for a long-term “citizen science” study of local biodiversity that museum experts expect to stretch throughout the Los Angeles Basin.
“This is a place where living things will come in and we can appreciate them in the wild,” says Karen Wise, the museum’s vice president of education and exhibits. “We don’t have to just have dead things on display.”
The new Natural History Museum isn’t the only cultural institution in Southern California to be reimagining the museum experience ways that are more authentic to L.A. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art under Director Michael Govan also has taken a more indoor-outdoor approach with installations such as Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” and Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” on its campus. In fact, on the same day as the Natural History Museum celebration, LACMA will unveil a proposed architectural remodel that would make the county’s 50-year-old art museum literally transparent to visitors.
“I love letting the light in,” says Pisano. “I think it changes everything about the museum. I love that it’s fun, and I love that it has become a destination where visitors of all ages can come and spend the day and still not see it all.”
And, she says, there’ll be more to love as the next century gets underway at the museum. Pisano says the renovation has upgraded about 60 percent of the public space on the campus, with plenty of projects on the horizon.
“We need to redo the auditorium,” she says. “There still are exhibit galleries that need to be re-presented. We need to redo our Gem and Mineral Hall. We’ve talked about a Hall of the Americas for a long time.
“There’s a lot to be done,” says the museum director, “but I’m so optimistic about the future of this place.”
April 4, 2013
For some, spring is a chance to plant a few tomatoes. For Florence Nishida, it’s an opportunity to re-landscape the face of Greater L.A.
This month, for example, the 75-year-old master gardener will be checking in on some of the 20 or so South Los Angeles yards she helped turn into vegetable gardens. She’ll be sizing up a front lawn and a parkway for makeovers by Los Angeles Green Grounds, the urban gardening group she co-founded.
She’ll be monitoring the community garden she recently did in Koreatown for the new First 5 initiative, Little Green Fingers, and following up with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps on the raised beds she devised for outside their East L.A. office. Then there’s the LA Green Grounds table to set up and man for Earth Day at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, not to mention the regular Sunday gardening workshops she conducts at the museum.
And this is the former schoolteacher’s idea of retirement.
“From years and years ago, it has been my goal,” explains Nishida, “to have a vegetable garden and a fruit tree on every block in L.A.”
Nishida isn’t the only urban gardener on a mission these days in Los Angeles County, but lately, she has been among the more productive ones. Since 2010, when she persuaded the Natural History Museum to let her install a small teaching garden on its Exposition Park campus as part of an inner-city community project, her green thumb has been in many, if not most, of the urban gardening projects that have sprouted across the city like backyard zucchini.
One of her first students, artist Ron Finley, has won international acclaim with a pair of TED talks on urban gardening. Her former teaching assistant, the museum’s public programs manager Vanessa Vobis, is among at least five protégés who have gone on to become fellow master gardeners. Green Grounds, which she co-founded with Finley and Vobis, has literally broken new ground in South L.A., where the group has worked one yard at a time, installing gardens at volunteer “dig-ins” to help under-served neighborhoods grow their own organic produce.
Nishida herself has been called in increasingly to consult on community gardening projects throughout the county. Meanwhile, her edible garden at the Natural History Museum has drawn some 150 students just to the beginner’s workshop; this year, her class will expand to the new Erika J. Glazer Family Edible Garden, a showplace of fruit trees and seasonal plantings that will open officially in June with the rest of the museum’s new Nature Gardens.
“The museum was ground zero,” Nishida says now. “It all started from that class.”
Nishida hasn’t always seen gardening as a road to anyone’s revolution. A native Angeleno, she says, home gardens were a fact of life for her Japanese-American relatives throughout Southern California and in the Exposition Park neighborhood where she grew up.
“After World War II, my grandparents resettled in West L.A. near Sawtelle and grew vegetables in their front yard, as did a lot of people,” she remembers. But as time passed and L.A.’s economy shifted, fast food joints, un-walkable streets and dense apartments crowded out the kitchen gardens and mom-and-pop produce stands, gradually eroding the city’s health and turning organic produce into an upper-middle-class status symbol.
As Nishida moved to Topanga, worked and raised her four children, she says, she always held a notion that her old, blighted neighborhood might be restored if someone could bring back the green space. Eventually—after 20 years as an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, another 20 as a bureau manager and research librarian at People magazine’s West Coast Bureau and a graduate degree in botany that resulted in a sideline as a mushroom expert at the Natural History Museum—she decided to revisit her old theory.
“I had seen a little article in the Los Angeles Times about the master gardening program at the UC Cooperative Extension,” she remembers. “It was a tiny little article, but for whatever reason, I just saved it.” When she retired in 2008, she says, she took the classes, which require, among other things, that graduates go on to lead community gardening projects in under-served parts of their cities; one of her early projects was a home garden that later served as a model for Green Grounds. Another was a plan to bring gardening knowledge to Exposition Park by launching a class at the museum.
That idea—which dovetailed with the museum’s centennial plans to re-landscape its North Campus into a “living laboratory”—led to her meeting with Finley, an experienced gardener in his own right who had signed up for her class after he had noticed another master gardener’s project near Dorsey High School. Soon Nishida was asking Finley for advice on how to bring more neighborhood people into her museum classes.
“I told her, ‘They’re not gonna come to your classes—they got Burger King, they got Kentucky Fried Chicken’,” recalls Finley. “We gotta take it to them.” That, he says, was the start of Green Grounds, which effectively installs free gardens in people’s front yards in the style of an old-fashioned barn raising, and which has taken off since Finley’s second TED talk in February.
“We got people driving in from Ventura,” he marvels. “I’m like, damn! Is it that boring in Ventura? I mean, we had over 300 people sign up at our last dig-in, and all we needed was 15.”
Nishida says Green Grounds has been an education, not only in the art of managing volunteerism but on the laws of nature in L.A. Their first garden flourished for three months, only to be destroyed by the homeowner’s German shepherd. Another garden fed a family for nearly half a year before they were evicted. A third fell prey to a local gang she’d never heard of—gophers. Finley famously fought with the City of L.A. over the parkway he wanted to replant outside his house.
Nonetheless, Nishida says, 13 of the Green Grounds gardens are still blooming, with more in the pipeline; recently the group set up a fiscal sponsorship with the L.A. Community Garden Council to handle the influx of donations since Finley’s TED talks. And those gardens have, in turn, been change agents: Neighbors have gotten to know each other over samples of fresh produce, she says, and exercise groups have sprung up among dig-in volunteers and recipients of gardens.
In fact, she says, her only disappointments have been that the movement hasn’t spread faster, and that her commitments have left her so little time to tend to her own yard.
“Oh, it’s awful,” she confesses, laughing. “My vegetable beds are overrun with weeds.”
March 22, 2011
Will kids go wild for a machine that mimics the mouth of a pill bug? How durable should a soil sifter be if you want it to last for more than a field trip or two? Will people examine a compost pile without an invitation?
Inquiring minds at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County want to know.
In less than a month, the museum’s wildly popular Butterfly Pavilion will open for the spring and summer. In past years, the action has all been inside, in the fluttering realm of some 55 species of moths and butterflies.
But this April 10 when the Pavilion opens, the creatures with wings won’t be the only ones under observation. In an effort to perfect displays planned for the new North Campus gardens that will open in 2013 at the museum, an assortment of prototype gadgets and interactive science exhibits will be tested throughout the summer in the outdoor space around the greenhouse-like structure.
And museum workers are looking to visitors, young and old, for help.
“We’ll be making observations on how people use these interactive exhibits,” says Lila Higgins, the museum’s manager of citizen science and live animals. “We’ll be talking to visitors, listening to their feedback.”
New displays will be set up, one or two at a time, to see how visitors use them and to pinpoint aspects that need tweaking. Pint-sized focus group (aka kids) are especially invited to weigh in.
Museum officials hope the new garden—part of a sweeping renovation that began last year with the “Age of Mammals” exhibition and that this summer will double the museum’s dinosaur exhibits with a new Dinosaur Hall—will teach visitors more about Southern California’s natural environment and give the museum experience a novel outdoor component. Proposed areas include a Home Garden with vegetables and fruit, an Urban Wilderness featuring many native California flora and fauna and a “Get Dirty Zone” where kids can, for example, play in a dirt pile.
Interactivity, however, is considered to be key, and museum staffers have spent months brainstorming ideas for displays, Higgins says.
“I personally love looking through compost piles and finding little beetles and grubs in there,” she says, “but will other people want to do that?
Ideas that have made it to the prototype stage include a butterfly counter, a periscope that will give children a birds-eye view of the landscape, a gizmo that will let kids sift soil and—dear to Higgins’ heart—a heart machine that will demonstrate how pill bugs break down leaves to help create compost.
“Everybody knows that worms aerate the soil, but not everyone knows what pill bugs do,” says Higgins. “So we were all around the table, with ideas flying around, and we knew we were going to have this Get Dirty Zone, and so we started talking about what pill bugs do. Well, they shred leaves. So what if a kid could have the chance to be like a pill bug? Maybe turn a crank and see that a pill bug’s mouth is like a leaf shredder?”
Within a few months, they had a prototype from Cinnabar California Inc, the Los Angeles firm that designed and built the Age of Mammals exhibit. Devised so that children as young as 5 can access it, it’s a metal mechanism in a wooden box that demonstrates the mechanics of the bug’s mouth.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it anywhere in the world,” says Higgins. “Maybe it’s a bit wacky, but the first time I saw the mock-up—well, when I see a kid use it, I’m going to be so excited.”
April 22, 2010
The Natural History Museum is, in its words, getting “a new front yard”—3.5 acres of open-air habitats and exhibits designed to attract local wildlife and connect visitors with Southern California’s unique outdoor experiences.
“We saw a chance to put nature back in natural history,” museum president and director Dr. Jane Pisano said during a media event to announce the ambitious $30-million project, scheduled to open in the Summer of 2011.
Tentatively called “North Campus,” the outdoor area will increase the museum’s exhibit space by 50% through the creation of 11 “wilderness” areas with such names as Pollinator Garden, Living Wall, Urban Edge, Shadow Garden and Get Dirty Zone.
The goal is to replicate a series of distinct natural environments that draw birds, butterflies, lizards and other wildlife while becoming educational laboratories for visitors of all ages. (For a detailed list of North Campus features, click here).
In addition to the outdoor exhibits, a 140-foot bridge—inspired by a whale skeleton exhibited inside the facility—will span overhead, allowing visitors to walk from the street directly to the entrance of the county-run museum off Exposition Boulevard. A stop will also be built in front of the museum for the new light-rail Expo Line, which is now under construction.
Funding for the project includes $10 million from L.A. County to build a two-story garage that will free up more space for the habitats.
North Campus is the latest piece of the Natural History Museum’s ongoing rebuilding and transformation project leading up to its 2013 Centennial. Called “NHM Next,” the initiative started with the dramatic restoration of the museum’s 1913 building, completed last year.
The Beaux Arts building was the first dedicated museum in L.A., so its restoration included a state of the art seismic retrofit to strengthen the un-reinforced brick walls.
Construction crews also restored the building’s iconic dome, covered with a stunning display of more than a million yellow and green ceramic tiles. Meanwhile, artists recreated the building’s gargoyles and topped the east wing with a new 6-foot eagle to replace the original bird destroyed in a 1920s earthquake. The grandson of the creator of a stained-glass skylight oversaw the restoration of the multi-hued piece.
In July, the building’s first new permanent exhibit is set to open, a ground-breaking look at 65-million years of the “Age of Mammals,” the first permanent exhibit to link geology and climate change over the entire sweep of mammalian history.
Scheduled to open in 2011 will be “Dinosaur Mysteries: Past & Present,” a mega-exhibit exploring how dinosaurs lived and why they died. The stars of that show will be the world’s only grouping of a baby, child and adult T. rex.
Come December, 2012, just before the museum’s centennial celebration, a third major exhibit will debut—“Under the Sun: Los Angeles, California and the World.” It will chart local cultural and natural history with hundreds of artifacts and artworks.
While waiting for the new exhibits, museum goers have had plenty of offerings in the museum’s 1920s buildings that have remained open, including the beloved dioramas of wild animal habitats of Africa and North America, and a “Thomas the T. rex” exhibit showing the young adult dinosaur excavated recently in Montana. To plan a visit, check out the museum’s updated website.
November 16, 2008
Turn off the TV and dive into L.A. County’s rich cultural life. Head to the museum. Hit a play. Score some symphony tickets. Just get out and enjoy. And to help you navigate your many choices, here’s a compendium of event calendars from an assortment of media outlets, colleges and cultural institutions.