Presenting the City of Angels

  • A model of Downtown Los Angeles from the 1930’s, part of the “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition. Photograph Omar Bárcena/Courtesy Flickr
  • The magnificent altar, titled “Altar to el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles,” created by Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, for the “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition. Photograph by Sergey Galyonkin/Courtesy Flickr

The Natural History Museum’s “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition presents the city’s journey from a small pueblo to a booming metropolis.

Have you ever wondered how the City of Los Angeles became one of America’s most sprawling metropolises? “Becoming Los Angeles,” a permanent exhibition at the city’s Natural History Museum (NHM), tells the epic story of how the City of Angels evolved from a tiny pueblo into the bustling capital of the film and entertainment industry and the world-class global destination that it is today. 

In 2013, NHM, which is part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, opened “Becoming Los Angeles,” an eclectic 14,000-square-foot exhibition that explores the evolution of Los Angeles over five centuries. The exhibition kicked off a $135-million-dollar restoration project, called “NHM Next,” which was the most ambitious transformation in the museum’s history. This added about 1.4 hectares of nature gardens, new permanent exhibitions and focus on novel ways to tell the story of interactions between the natural and the manmade. 

After closing briefly, the exhibit reopened in 2018, with freshly commissioned artworks by local artists and new artifacts from the NHM archaeology/anthropology collection. Most notably, the update includes an expanded section on The First Angelenos, the indigenous Californians. Through photos, artworks and stories from modern and historical native Californians, the exhibit paints a picture of what Los Angeles was like for thousands of years prior to 1542, when Spanish explorers ventured into Alta California and encountered its indigenous people. Whether you are a local Angeleno or are visiting the city for the first time, “Becoming Los Angeles” contains countless artifacts and timeless human stories that illustrate the city’s incredible journey to being one of the world’s signature metropolises. 

“ ‘Becoming Los Angeles’ explores the rich history of Los Angeles and the diverse groups of people that have made the city their home,” explains Sarah Crawford, the exhibit developer. “When the groundbreaking exhibition opened in 2013, it was the only permanent museum exhibition to address the city’s development over five centuries, including its transformation from a small pueblo to a booming metropolis. We 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.”

The displays and photographs of “Becoming Los Angeles” include the names of the region’s original 44 Mexican settlers and even a bottle of water taken the first day the Los Angeles aqueduct opened in 1913. Overhead, a striking white steel sculptural canopy guides visitors through six major sections of the exhibit.

One of its most eye-catching pieces is a magnificent altar, titled “Altar to el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles,” the town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels. Ofelia Esparza and her daughter, Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, constructed this vibrant homage to celebrate the diversity and cultural richness of the city. It features objects that celebrate local neighborhoods, photos of iconic historical figures, a woven piece symbolizing the Los Angeles River and many beautiful bouquets of flowers. 

Another noteworthy section documents the birth and growth of Hollywood, the entertainment business that the city is almost synonymous with. Through a series of photos, unique items like a lifelike mannequin of Charlie Chaplin and artifacts like Walt Disney’s original animation machine, visitors are treated to an insider’s look into how early Hollywood pioneers created cinematic magic well before the days of computer graphics. 

“Becoming Los Angeles” also features innovative multimedia installations, including an interactive scale model of Downtown L.A. in the 1930’s, which takes visitors back in time through 10 distinct neighborhoods in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

In the final gallery, the museum invites visitors to share their Los Angeles stories in their own voices in special audio booths. They can also listen to the audio recordings of fellow museum visitors.  

The exhibits’ content is available in both English and Spanish. Admission to the NHM costs $12, and it is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.