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Los Angeles Exhibit Uses Innovative Multimedia Techniques to Capture City's Sights - 2004-03-20

A museum exhibit in Los Angeles captures the sights and sounds of the city in a multimedia presentation. The innovative display at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum is called LA: Light, Motion, Dreams.

Visitors entering what appears to be an airship get a birds-eye view of the city, projected on a screen that looks like a porthole. Museum-goers have the sensation that they are flying with California condors, an endangered species distinctive to the region.

Visitors pass through a series of rooms, which focus on themes from the natural history or social life of Los Angeles.

The museum's Vanda Vitali says the overarching theme of the show is preserving the environment.

"It is how we as a natural history museum want to think about the relation between nature and culture and the responsibility that we all have for our natural environment," he said.

Museum curators say the image of Los Angeles is as an island between the desert and the sea, a place of dreams, which is limited by geographic realities.

The exhibit looks at sustainability in the foothill neighborhoods, with a jarring display of a wild coyote standing behind a suburban home. The coyote is proudly holding its prey, a dead family pet.

A coastal display shows a Los Angeles beach scene, with its surfers, swimmers, joggers and cyclists. Visitors enter this display through a room that resembles the ocean bottom, with shells and sea urchins. As they ascend a set of stairs, says designer Francois Confino, they have the impression they are emerging from the ocean. At the top, they see a mockup of the California coastline, and make discoveries like those that the French designer made when he first came here.

"They go to the top. They have to turn themselves, and they discover the entire coast of Los Angeles from Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice and Long Beach. And I took these photographs myself, and I enjoyed doing that job, because I discovered a lot of the coast of Los Angeles, which as a French tourist, I had not known before," he said.

Further on, a video display, magnified by mirrors, captures the city's brilliant light, seen through its downtown skyline and rural vistas lined with palm trees.

A curious feature of the Los Angeles environment is shown in another section. The Los Angeles River today is a network of concrete drainage channels that are dry for most of the year, although environmental groups hope to restore parts of the river to their original condition.

Vanda Vitali says the exhibit shows the river's evolution from its early days. "We talk about the river when it was wild, when it was put into concrete, and now when we are trying to reach a new equilibrium," she said.

A talking newsstand shows the diversity of Los Angeles in a novel way. It contains historical examples of the city's ethnic newspapers, which served the Spanish-speaking community, Chinese immigrant workers, or immigrant Jews from Europe. Vincent Brie helped design and build the exhibit, which offers speaking images of noted local people.

"This is an interaction between a newspaper stand owner and his magazines, and the LA Times [newspaper], as well. Each of these magazines are actually LCD screens, with very well known L.A. residents, from Frank Romero, Tommy Lasorda," he said.

People like artist Frank Romero and baseball manager Tommy Lasorda discuss their views of the city and what makes it special.

A final section of the exhibit shows the Los Angeles of dreams. It includes movie props from the Hollywood dream factory, including the "Little Tramp" costume worn by the silent film star Charlie Chaplin and the fabricated hand of the giant movie ape King Kong.

Curator Jonathan Spaulding says the exhibit appeals to youngsters, and even adults enjoy themselves as they explore the show.

Mr. Spaulding says visitors are intrigued with the final section, where they wear a white cape that displays images of the city that are projected on the walls and on their clothing.

"People come in to have fun, and we get a very diverse audience, different ages, different ethnic groups, different income level. Every kind of person in the city comes through here. And it becomes a lively meeting ground. So, it gets crowded, it gets crazy, but it's fun," he said.

Staff members say this exhibition marks a change of direction for their museum, a move away from simple descriptive displays to multimedia shows, which are designed to immerse visitors in a learning adventure.

The exhibit LA: Light, Motion, Dreams will be on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through January 9 next year.