What happens after museums end fundraising campaigns for capital projects? Not only are campaigns extensive, they are tremendously expensive. Many people want to know where all the money goes and what purposes the hard-earned funds serve, but there’s another question surrounding these ambitious projects: what happens when a campaign is still in process? Depending on the project, museums can either close their doors until capital campaigns are over, provide pop-up and site-specific exhibitions, or remain open to the public while fundraising. For the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, engaging the public has been a central element of all stages of “NHM Next,” its ongoing campaign to fulfill its mission of inspiring wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds through on-hands activities, programming, and scholarship.
The five-year project began in 2007 with a fundraising goal of $115 million, but was extended by Museum Director Jane Pisano to allow for additional attractions, structures, and projects. “NHM Next” has thus far raised 86% of its new $135 million goal. Projects from the campaign include the museum’s current “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition, a unique take on how Los Angeles became the city and region it is today; Nature Gardens and Nature Lab, gardening workshops and nature walks that connect visitors with science educators and local civic green spaces; Dinosaur Hall, a world-renowned exhibit displaying more than 300 real fossils and 20 complete dinosaurs and ancient sea creatures; Age of Mammals, an evolutionary story about how continents move and climates change; and a restoration of the 1913 museum building structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans include a 50% increase in school visits (currently 200,000 schoolchildren visit free of charge) and targeting more than one million annual visitors, which would mark an almost 100% increase in attendance since 2009. Instead of targeting a particular demographic, NHM is reaching out to the entire city, using its capital campaign as a springboard for big-picture thinking about its role in a sprawling and hugely diverse civic community.
“NHM Next” is successfully transitioning the museum into the 21st century as it exhibits more of its vast collection of over 35 million specimens and engages visitors through science and technology to encourage learning and discovery. Most importantly, NHM is claiming its rightful place as one of Los Angeles’ leading cultural institutions by facilitating the use of museum resources to further scholarship and experimentation, as well as to continue a dialogue about our role in preserving our planet for the future. This focus on dialogue points to a forward-looking belief in the role of cultural institutions as resources, launch pads, and public squares as we confront the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. In the midst of increasing interest in contemporary and modern art, it is crucial that natural history museums like NHM complement the arts and receive the investment required to facilitate these discussions and an engagement in nature, as the natural world shapes both our daily lives and ever-changing global conditions.
The first step toward NHM’s ambitious project was acknowledging an increasing need to teach visitors how our environment functions. As this environment is visibly changing around us, NHM wants its visitors to slow down to enjoy the nature that is everywhere around them, to focus on their environment and understand how it functions, and to ultimately be instilled with a sense of activism in order to preserve it. Although capital campaigns are guarded during the first stages, NHM illustrates the value of including the community during the fundraising stages. Demonstrating how campaign funds are actively utilized to advance the museum’s mission is not only exciting and worthwhile, but it is beneficial to the community and the world at large.