Becoming Los Angeles

Client: Natural history museum of los angeles county (NHMLA)

partners: created in-house with the exhibitions team of nhmla, adams/morioka, second story, cinnabar, KBDA, and many others.

Run dates: permanent gallery. opened 2012, and re-imagined in 2017.

Project brief:
• Highlight the museum’s huge collection of artifacts representing hundreds, even thousands of years of LA history
• Tell stories of the sprawling city of Los Angeles in exhibit halls spread over14,000 square feet, and 5 entry points.
• Use materials and big statements to tie together an extremely diverse collection of objects and stories
• Coordinate multidisciplinary teams of designers, fabricators, historians, storytellers
• Test materials, concepts, and exhibit strategies

Becoming Los Angeles tells the story of one of the country’s most vibrant and vital cities. At 14,000 square feet, the permanent exhibit is the museum’s largest in scale and broadest in scope, guiding visitors through L.A.’s complicated past, exploring its dynamic present, and looking toward its promising future.

It truly takes not just a village—but a city to tell the LA story!

How do we capture more than 500 years of Angeleno history?

Becoming LA brings Los Angeles history to life through compelling stories about this rich landscape. Objects from the museum’s collections connect visitors to the people who struggled and thrived in a land of perpetual sunshine and scarce water, objects made and used by Native Americans, colonists, and settlers; rancheros, citrus growers, and oil barons; captains of industry, boosters, and radicals; filmmakers, innovators, and more.

The relationship between cause and effect, nature and culture, human activity and the land, provides the prism through which Becoming Los Angeles organizes and tells the tales of the frontiers, opportunities, communities, and individuals that have shaped the city’s history.

FOLLOW THE GRAIN OF TIME: All imagery courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Project generated as part of in-house staff at NHMLA.

Assembling a mighty team. Designing and building Becoming Los Angeles took an integrated team of designers, engineers, fabricators, historians, storytellers, graphic artists, registrars, and support staff working together in a years-long effort to create this epic exhibit.

Countless creative minds worked together on a long journey to bring Becoming LA to life. The team encouraged out-of-the box thinking at every turn.

We used creative process and brainstorming methods, unique materials, bespoke cases, imaginative lighting effects, and other ingenious ways to maximize the big spaces the exhibition flows through. Our goal of developing a clear, comprehensive narrative through visuals was a tricky. 500+ years of history can be hard to summarize!

We focused our experience by drawing attention to the significant and sometimes quirky objects from the museum’s history collections–for example–a bottle of water taken the first day the Los Angeles aqueduct opened Nov. 5, 1913, and a taxidermic cow accompanied by the story of the effects of cattle feces on local plant species.

Testing…testing…testing. Through prototyping and testing, we developed innovative ways to represent this singular city. Proactive prototyping allowed for dexterity, flexibility, and creative approaches and solutions to building. The team also conducted regular evaluations to check our concepts and ideas with our audience groups.

It’s ok to evolve in public. We listened to visitors. We listened to community members. We listened to activists. And we listened to scholars. We found some elements of Becoming LA weren’t working for all of our audiences, so we dared to re-imagine the exhibit and amp up the many voices that tell the stories of Los Angeles. We're pretty proud of the final result, because the installation grew stronger the more we listened.

"This installation represents much more that what you can see on the surface of its presentation. This particular story demanded passion and perseverance from each team member to create a unique synthesis of Angeleno history. We learned from our successes and failures–and in the process–crafted our own understanding of what a historic installation could and should be: authentic to the peoples represented, visually stunning, and rich in layered experience."

– Davina Wolter, Senior Manager, Design of Exhibitions, NHMLA

AN ALTAR FOR LA: Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, creators of the altar, discuss their work in the Becoming Los Angeles exhibition.