Science with a seriously cool streak
April 10, 2012
Meet Su Oh, the Natural History Museum’s in-house impresario.
Perhaps the only L.A. County employee whose job combines musical cool-hunting, scientific showmanship and a strong sense of theatrical occasion, Oh has been masterminding the museum’s “First Fridays” series for the past five years, presenting programs that combine top-notch lectures with cutting-edge live music.
Thanks in large part to Oh’s efforts, a species once endangered in the museum environment—the young adult—is approaching critical mass.
“At first, people were mainly coming for the concerts,” said Oh, Director of Education and Programs at the museum. “Now, they are coming for the lectures, too. The talks are really starting to rival the music in popularity.”
Oh, 40, formerly worked as an awards manager for the Recording Academy, which produces the Grammys. Five years ago, she decided it was time for a career change, but wasn’t quite sure how to use her entertainment industry experience to her advantage. She hadn’t had science-related experience since college, when she worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
It just so happened that the Natural History Museum was seeking someone to take over First Fridays and work on boosting attendance. Oh tapped into her music industry experience to identify and book up-and-coming acts. The events began to pick up credibility among young people with an ear for innovative sounds.
Nowadays, the lecturers she schedules are rock stars in their own right, from the astronomer who “killed” Pluto to this week’s Pulitzer-winning presenter, Dr. Jared Diamond, widely known for his scholarship on everything from the birds of Papua New Guinea to the causes of global inequality. Diamond is perhaps best known for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
To Oh, great content is always the most important thing. Everything else follows.
“People may not know the bands and they may not know the scientists, but they trust that we are going to find good stuff for them, worth exploring at least,” she said.
Oh, whose duties also include outreach to schools and events like the annual Bug Fair, views First Fridays as “happenings” rather than just concerts or lectures. She has used projections, installation art and even a 14-foot T-Rex puppet to expand the audience’s experience while uniting them with the unique museum environment. Whatever the hook, it appears to be working. First Fridays increasingly draw large crowds, often nearing or reaching capacity.
Those crowds are not likely to dwindle soon. When Phase 1 of Exposition Light Rail Line opens on April 28, it will give the public a new route to the museum’s doorstep.
The stage is set for the Natural History Museum to celebrate its 100th birthday next year. Oh will take a more managerial role on First Fridays after this season, so she can focus more on the big picture. She envisions outdoor events that could host larger crowds while bringing nature lovers and conservationists into the fold.
That inclusivity is a hallmark of Oh’s programs. It’s also what drives her.
“I like connecting people, especially if they are not in each other’s normal realms,” she said. “The bigger gap there is to bridge, the more interested I am in it.”
You can see what the buzz is about at the latest installment of First Fridays this week.