Written by Jessica Portner
Photography by Art Gray
Becoming Los Angeles,
our new permanent exhibition, is
a hometown epic 500 years in the
making. The sleek, modern experience
portrays Los Angeles galloping
through the centuries, touching
down on both tragic and surprising
moments that illuminate how the land
and the people—nature and culture
—interacted to change a remote
pueblo into a metropolis.
The exhibition chronicles a time
before the Spanish arrived into the
Mission and the Mexican Rancho
Eras, through the early days of an
American city leading up to now.
It is, at its core, a big, sweeping story
of transformations—of politics, of
the economy, of how a great city was
created through hard work, successes,
failures, and innovations. “But lest
you think it’s just people impacting
the land, let me tell you that this land
bites back,” said Margaret Hardin,
lead exhibit curator.
Treasure Chest of History
The exhibition features hundreds of
unparalleled objects and artifacts,
including a hand-inscribed sword from
the Mexican War of Independence,
a 1902 Tourist automobile made in
downtown Los Angeles, and a period
steam locomotive lantern, all of which
propel visitors through an epic story
of the city. Clearly, the exhibit team
had extraordinary storytelling tools.
Hundreds of objects and artifacts
were donated to the Museum,
including family heirlooms, tools,
toys, cars, and early movie-making
equipment. For much of its 100-year
history, the Museum was the
primary institution where pioneering
organizations and wealthy families
donated their treasures.
Some of the stories told through
these objects are well known, such
as how the acquisition of water
through the Los Angeles Aqueduct
in 1913 allowed Los Angeles to grow.
But there are other natural and human
influences that might surprise visitors:
how cattle, the Gold Rush, floods,
a plague of grasshoppers, railroads,
and outlandish booster campaigns
all played a part in transforming
the region into an agricultural and
industrial empire; the pivotal role
Los Angeles played in World War II;
and the dynamic diversity of the
Many of those families’ stories
appear in “portrait clouds,” which
unfold in the corners of the galleries.
These clusters of ornate paintings
and photographs are windows into
the domains of diverse groups of
people whose lives shaped and were
altered by historic events. A sampling
includes Native Americans and
settlers; rancheros, citrus growers
and oil barons; captains of industry,
boosters, and radicals; innovators
One of the earliest settlers,
Harris Newmark, arrived in the
Pueblo during the 1850s, having
traveled from Prussia on a six-month
journey that involved a ship, a
couple of mules, and a lot of walking.
He kept moving when he got here,
too, as a charter member of the
chamber of commerce and an
organizer of the Los Angeles
Another of L.A.’s great
early citizens was Pío de Jesús
Pico, an affluent landowner, the
last Governor of California under
Mexican rule, and the namesake
of the boulevard. He was also an
hotelier—owner of Pico House,
whose goblets and silverware have
been shined up for visitors to see.
Next to a portrait of well-heeled
cattle rancher Abel Stearns is a
portrait of his wife, and a tortoise shell
comb that well-to-do ladies of the
time wore to soirees. It’s displayed
alongside a receipt showing how
many steers it took to procure the
adornment. The message: cattle
were currency then, and that had
consequences. As herds expanded,
cows ate, and spread nonnative
grasses across the state, altering
the landscape forever.
“That’s why it’s a courageous
show, I think,” said Dr. Jane Pisano,
NHM President and Director.
“It shows how our actions have
consequences, intended and not.
What our ancestors do mattered,
and that what we do today matters.
It’s all connected.”
Touch this grasshopper plaque and watch a
surprising story about L.A.