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Culture

New at NHM: L.A. Underwater

April 29, 2022 by Brian Champlin
L.A. Underwater: The Prehistoric Sea Beneath Us at Natural History Museum. Photo by Christina Champlin

A shark as big as a semi-trailer swims by on a wall-sized projection screen. To my right, a touch pad lets me search for fossil finds in local neighborhoods while on the other side of the room an exhibit explains why sea fossils are found on land digs. This is L.A. Underwater: The Prehistoric Sea Beneath Us, a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which opens to the public on Monday, May 2.

L.A. Underwater explores prehistoric Los Angeles, a period when the basin we know and love was completely enveloped by the Pacific Ocean. It’s a big idea covering a massive stretch of time, but the exhibition isn’t exactly what I would call enormous in size. Giant screen notwithstanding, we’re talking about a single exhibition room filled with a handful of exhibits and a few dozen fossils. There some cool finds, like a 10 million-year-old whale skull dug up in Lincoln Heights in the 1930s, or the fossil of an extinct ammonoid (Eupachydiscus) that called Los Angeles its home some 74 million years ago. But, importantly I think, the scope of the what’s here touches on the connections between past and present, birthing ideas that deserve interrogation.

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Fossil exhibit at L.A. Underwater: The Prehistoric Sea Beneath Us at Natural History Museum. Photo by Christina Champlin

One key point that’s made is that the City of Angels is also a city of oil. By 1923, Los Angeles was producing nearly 20% of the world’s crude. But the groundwork for our prodigious production (and consumption) of fossil fuels during the twentieth century was laid out millions of years ago. Ancient plankton buried below the sea floor cooked into petroleum over the eons. We dug it up and powered our world. Yet one wonders, where is that world going?

Saber Tooth Cat skull at L.A. Underwater: The Prehistoric Sea Beneath Us at Natural History Museum. Photo by Christina Champlin

One of the first exhibits when you walk in tells you that it was only about 100,000 years ago that the area known as Los Angeles was submerged in water. The creation of the present topography is a (geologically speaking) recent phenomena. But as sea levels creep higher, important questions also arise. Will Venice and Long Beach underwater in the next hundred years? What does immigration look like as coastal areas around the world are flooded by climate change. These are stories yet to be written, and yet we ought to consider them if we want to have a hand in how they end.

Fossils on display at L.A. Underwater: The Prehistoric Sea Beneath Us at Natural History Museum. Photo by Christina Champlin

I’ve always felt that Natural History Museum is the best place in the Los Angeles to learn about the city itself, and it’s no accident that NHM’s newest exhibition is right next to Becoming Los Angeles, the museum’s signature collection of artifacts and exhibits detailing the cultural evolution of L.A. In this way, L.A. Underwater acts as a sort of prologue. It’s a vital piece in understanding where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. I hope you have a chance to check it out.


Natural History of Los Angeles County is located at 900 W Exposition Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. General admission starts at $15 for adults, and the museum offers free admission to L.A. County residents from 3 to 5 p.m.

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