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The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's 'Becoming Los Angeles' exhibition reopens
Master altar maker Ofelia Esparza. Photo by Deniz Durmas.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County reopened the permanent exhibition, Becoming Los Angeles, which explores the rich history of Los Angeles and the diverse groups of people that have made the city their home. When the groundbreaking exhibition opened in 2013, it was the only permanent museum exhibition to address the city’s development over five centuries, from a small pueblo to a booming metropolis. It aimed to weave Los Angeles’ natural and cultural developments into a single narrative, to show how people’s actions have a direct impact on their environment and vice versa. Visitors will now find an expanded section on Indigenous Angelenos, artworks inspired by Los Angeles that complement each historical section of the exhibition, fresh objects from NHMLA’s history and anthropology/archaeology collection and newly commissioned works by local artists. More of the exhibition’s main content now are bilingual, in English and Spanish.

“We are excited for people to get reacquainted with the Becoming Los Angeles exhibition, with its new focus on local, contemporary, and diverse Angeleno voices,” said Dr. Lori BettisonVarga, President and Director of NHMLA. “Our goal with these changes is to help people see themselves, and their communities, within the complicated intersections of nature and culture in L.A.”

“Becoming Los Angeles takes visitors on a journey across the centuries, offering a fascinating glimpse into the forces that shaped this place we call home,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “With this reimagined exhibit, the Natural History Museum delves into L.A.’s history while celebrating its cultural diversity.”

“Understanding our past gives us new insights into how we live today,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Becoming Los Angeles is a window into L.A.’s growth, from a parched pueblo into a global capital for culture and commerce, and the Natural History Museum—through this reimagined exhibit—will spark conversations and transform perspectives.”

Becoming Los Angeles’s opening section, “First Angelenos,” provides glimpses into the lives of Indigenous Angelenos before the arrival of Spanish Colonial settlers through historical objects paired with recently created versions in traditional styles by contemporary Native American artists. The section features a wall mural reproduction of artist Linda Vallejo’s (b. 1951) multihued painting Solitary Cloud II (2008) from her Los Cielos (The Skies) series, which invites visitors to think expansively about Southern California’s natural environment and people’s relation to it through newly commissioned portraits by photographer Isabel Avila and personal video interviews with Native Americans living in Los Angeles today.

“It’s been an honor to work with artists like Leah Mata, who has made necklaces that carry on Chumash tradition while facing issues of access to materials, and master altar makers Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, who are creating a permanent ofrenda to celebrate Los Angeles,” said NHMLA Vice President of Exhibitions Gretchen Baker. “Created from longstanding traditions, these objects have so much to tell us about the nature and culture of L.A today. We selected a group of artists whose work is inspired by this unique region and that will inspire visitors to think beyond the walls of the gallery—we are proud to be presenting these outstanding works.”

In addition to Vallejo’s Solitary Cloud II, reproductions of artworks that have been added to the exhibition include a woodblock-print by Daniel González (b. 1980) of the legendary Toypurina, a Gabrieleño/Tongva woman who co-led a failed attack on Misión San Gabriel Arcángel by her people in 1785 and is today celebrated as a hero by her Native American descendants and many others; a composite photograph by Elena Dorfman (b. 1965) of the modern-day L.A. River titled Sublime: The L.A. River 3, which shows an imagined landscape of clear green water that pulls visitors into the story of the flood control channel that’s undergoing a revitalization; and a painting from artist Harry B. Chandler’s (b. 1953) Autopia series depicting an abstract aerial view of the Foothill 210 and Ventura 101 freeway interchange. Joined by artwork by Judithe Hernández (b. 1948), Rob Reynolds (b. 1966), Jeffrey Milstein (b. 1944), Ernesto Yerena Montejano (b. 1986) and Philip Lumbang (b. 1986), the complex images are paired with historical photos and offer fresh perspectives on issues faced by the region’s rapidly growing population over the centuries, including water shortages, deportations, and suburban sprawl.

Rarely seen objects now are on view in Becoming Los Angeles, including a visibly-used saddle and riata (lasso) that would have been used by a Mexican vaquero (cowboy) more than a 150 years ago to bring down a bull, directly influencing the American cowboys of today; a Singer sewing machine from the tailor Alpert of Hollywood, accompanied by the stories of female garment workers and their fight to unionize and negotiate for higher wages, paid leave, and a 35-hour work week; and a red tutu from World War II’s favorite pinup girl, Betty Grable, from the 1945 movie Diamond Horseshoe—the sequins of which had been recycled due to wartime rationing, which forced filmmakers to scale back costume designs and set construction. These pieces illustrate the changes in the region’s economy during the Great Depression and World War II, along with changing workforces. The American postwar dream of suburban living, represented by a Cliff May model home from the early 1950s, is contrasted with legal documents outlining racially restrictive housing covenants that prevented many Angelenos from owning property in certain neighborhoods. Throughout the exhibition, visitors are presented with portraits of diverse Angelenos representative of their era.

The exhibition culminates with a newly commissioned ofrenda (offering) by Ofelia Esparza, artist and master altar-maker, and her daughter, artist Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. Since creating her first altar at L.A.’s Self Help Graphics & Art in 1988, Ofelia has established herself as an important figure in local exhibitions relating to Día de los Muertos. For NHMLA’s altar, Ofelia and Rosanna reached out to various communities and artists throughout the city and county to weave their own designs into the altar, so that it is not just for an individual, but is representative of the whole of Los Angeles. It references historical moments and geographical places within the city, along with flowers and animals that inhabit L.A. And just as Ofelia and Rosanna incorporate diverse Angeleno voices into their altar, new listening stations have been placed nearby where visitors can hear audio from museumgoers who came before them and then record their own voices as they answer the question, “What is Los Angeles to you?”

“Having worked on this exhibition when it originally opened in 2013, I’m thrilled with the opportunity to revisit it and add important artifacts from the Museum’s history collections,” said NHMLA History Department Chair Dr. William Estrada. “NHMLA has been collecting materials throughout its more than 100-year history and Becoming Los Angeles presents us with an opportunity to showcase a great expanse of this collection, from family heirlooms, photographs, and movie-making equipment, to accessioning the necklaces and altar—all of which tell the story and transformation of Los Angeles. In this new version, we’ve added new and personal ways for Angelenos to see themselves in that story.”

Parallel to the exhibition, a new gallery space will feature rotating exhibitions on Los Angeles topics, and while Becoming Los Angeles provides a broad historical overview, this rotating gallery will offer an in-depth look at particular moments that have shaped the city. Currently on view is artist Barbara Carrasco’s mural, L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, in the exhibition, Sin Censura: A Mural Remembers L.A.

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