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Los Angeles Museum Takes Visitors Outdoors to Showcase Nature

Mike O'Sullivan

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California, is redesigning its grounds to bring visitors outdoors, where they can spot hummingbirds and butterflies, take nature walks, and get their hands dirty in a garden. The L.A. museum's 1.4-hectare outdoor campus - previously a parking lot - has become a living exhibition of biodiversity.

For some of these young students, it's their first time getting hands-on experience in a garden.

Teacher Eva Eng says her students have been learning about plants in science class.

“Oh, they really like hand-on things, getting their hands in the mud, and planting seeds, watering them, watching them grow.  And it's a wonderful experience," said Eng.

The scientists at the museum have come outdoors to describe plants and insects in their natural setting.

“They're pretty amazing looking things," said the scientist. "This one's a parasitic wasp with an egg-layer or ovipositor that's long than it's body....”

Part of this newly landscaped area, now home to butterflies and wasps, was once a parking lot.  Today, it's a natural laboratory.

Karen Wise, the museum's vice president for education and exhibits, says the scientists here study the impact of climate change on species around the world.

“And we do that here in LA as well, and now, we're opening up the whole museum, making it an indoor-outdoor experience, so that our visitors can be a part of that experience," said Wise.

Scientist Greg Pauly says one of the species found here, the Western pond turtle, is struggling to adapt to human intrusions on its environment.

“150 years ago, before there were very many people here, all of the streams were just seasonal streams," said Pauly. "And the Western pond turtle loved that habitat.  And with people, we've changed the habitat.  There's a lot more permanent water like this pond here.”

And he says this changing habitat is one of the reasons the numbers of this species are declining.

Some of the new construction includes a soaring glass atrium at the museum's North campus entrance, with a glass-lined pedestrian bridge leading into it.  Architect Fabian Kremkus, a German immigrant, says the white steel arches of the walkway were inspired by whale bones.

“What I remember from my childhood visiting the Frisian Islands, that whaling captains would erect, when they retired, the biggest set of jawbones that they hunted," said Kremkus. "And so this is reminiscent of that and takes a cue from making a nice new entrance for the Natural History Museum.

Today, city children have little contact with nature, and the outdoor display will change that, says landscape architect Mia Lehrer.

“What does it mean to see what strawberry plants look like, that they don't come from a container in the store?   And a tomato …  children have been asked, where does ketchup come from?  They don't know," said Lehrer.

Here, they're finding out.

Parts of the new outdoor campus are open now for limited use.  It will open fully to the public in June of next year for the museum's 100-year anniversary celebration.

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