July 2010

Burning Man


John Long, bringing his passion to the reimagined Museum of Natural History, is determined to fire up a whole new generation

Alex Hoerner

Paleontologist John Long makes no bones about it: He’ll try anything to get your kids hooked on what he’s peddling at L.A.’s Museum of Natural History—the joys of discovery, the glories of science and the wonders of life itself.

Long, the new vice president of research and collections, came to Los Angeles from his native Australia eight months ago for the “adventure” of participating in the $91 million “reimagining” of the institution, which bears the distinction of being the city’s first public museum. On July 11, Long and his colleagues will welcome the public to the restored 1913 Haaga Family Rotunda and the state-of-the-art Age of Mammals exhibition. It’s the first phase of an ambitious renovation and expansion that will unfold over the next three years in anticipation of the museum’s centennial in 2013.

At the moment, though, the mammal exhibition is being installed in an airy wing off the Beaux Arts–style rotunda, a Historical Landmark Building that CO Architects has been renovating and seismically retrofitting since 2006. Long navigates through headless skeletons and plastic-shrouded exhibits in various stages of assembly as he moves toward a display of a cheetah skeleton paired with a model of a living one in full stride.

“Having fossils side by side with the animals integrates the story of evolution beautifully,” he says. “The way you see the layers, the evidence of how the mammals changed and adapted. We don’t want you to just see a bone and have us tell you what happened.”

Long points to the remains of an ancient sea lion strung overhead on wires. “If you see these kinds of exhibits in Australia, they’re all replicas, but here they are actually the real thing—real bones.” His blue eyes crinkle with a smile, his enthusiasm contagious. “What’s really amazing is that many of these specimens were discovered here in California. Take a look at that skeleton over there. That’s called the Simi Valley mastodon. They discovered it when they were building a mall. It should really have another name—Lisa or something. Maybe we can have a competition to name it.”

It’s not hard to imagine Long as a precocious seven-year-old, when he discovered his first fossil by accident while digging in the dirt. By 11, he’d won a science talent search in his home state of Victoria for his fossil work, putting him on the path to becoming one of the world’s leading experts in the evolution of fish and dinosaurs—and evolutionary theory in general. A father of three grown children, Long is also the author of 27 books, including 10 children’s books, a novel and a memoir, Mountains of Madness: A Journey Through Antarctica.

Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits, says the museum waited a long time to find someone like Long. “There are a lot of brilliant scientists,” she says, “but very few who are just as brilliant at communicating to a wide audience.”

Inspiring visitors is essential to Long’s mission. While some of the more than 35 million objects in the museum’s collection go back 4.5 billion years, he doesn’t see them as old news. “Museums shouldn’t be musty, static places,” he says. “They should be changing and evolving all the time to reflect the science. Behind the scenes is a dynamic bunch of scientists who are continually mining the collections and creating new knowledge. It’s what we do.”

Long plans more research expeditions, but for now there is enough going on to keep him busy. Next year at this time, the museum will open Dinosaur Mysteries, as well as a three-acre urban wilderness that will be the site of the first institutionally sponsored, long-term study of urban biodiversity.

“This kind of research is incredibly productive. We can find new species in people’s backyards, right here in downtown L.A. One of our entomologists did that the other day—he put out a trap and came away with a whole new species of fly. It’s my job to make people appreciate just how thrilling that is.”

SAMANTHA DUNN’s latest book is Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation.