‘Memory maps’ help reveal LA’s hidden nature

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For those of us living in a city, nature seems to exist at a distance – until we’re invaded by a storm, a wildfire, or a wayward coyote. But staffers at The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles say that when we fail to notice the nature around us, we’re missing out on some great stuff.

One of the “memory maps” at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles’ Nature Lab exhibit.

The museum opened its indoor Nature Lab and outdoor Nature Gardens earlier this summer. They highlight the research being done at the museum, and engage visitors in hands-on activities and experiments. Staffers wanted to get visitors to think about nature – and not like the beach, or the mountains – but the everyday things we see, and hardly give a thought to.

“It’s been amazing to realize how much nature is out there, just to listen to it,” said  Dan Keeffe, manager of interpretation and training at the museum. He lives with his wife and two-year-old in the Mt. Washington neighborhood. In between the late-night cries of their baby, he said they’ve been hearing their neighborhood differently.

“We don’t always see all of these things, but at night we hear coyotes howling, or we hear owls hooting. We had a colony of bees move into our garage, and you could hear the buzzing of them all the time and actually feel the heat of the hive through the garage wall, which was really cool,” Keeffe said.

Keeffe is one of the staffers who made something called a “memory map.” There are sixteen of these large, hand-drawn maps in the exhibit. They describe people’s experiences seeing nature in unexpected places in Southern California. Keeffe’s “memory map” details those encounters with an interactive sound component.


“And so you have things like coyotes howling, and you have hawks flying overhead, but then you also have those other sounds you hear in the city, like a garage band playing across the street,” Keeffe said. “There’s also a dad vacuuming next to a baby crying, which I think is also really cool since that’s my house.”

The museum commissioned a handful of local illustrators to bring the staff members’ nature memories to life. They used a simple color palette of blue, green and grey. And the maps aren’t just flat, two-dimensional drawings. They have actual, real-life taxidermied animals and pressed plants inside them.

“It’s all annotated and illustrated with little bits of color. And then cut into the map is like an actual log, covered with ladybugs, and an actual lizard crawling up a branch, and a squirrel and a skunk and a rabbit,” said Jennifer Morgan, the senior project manager for the Nature Lab exhibit.

Leo Politi class at communal table
Students from Leo Politi Elementary School visit the Nature Lab. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Lila Higgins, an environmental educator at the museum, has her own memory map of LA. It includes an incredibly tiny snail, viewed through a magnifying glass, and something called “bird’s nest fungus.” Higgins lives in Koreatown, where you might not think a lot of nature exists. But on a recent walk around her neighborhood, she snapped a picture of “dog vomit slime mold.”

“It really looks like dog’s vomit, but it’s a slime mold and it grows a lot of times when new mulch is put into a neighborhood. And it’s pink and it’s sometimes yellow, and it actually moves. It can move overnight. It’s one of the coolest things ever,” Higgins said.

By creating their own “memory maps” of seeing nature in LA, the Natural History Museum staffers hope visitors will think of nature as something interwoven in their lives, not separate from them.

You can see Lila Higgins and others discuss these issues at a discussion called “Does L.A. Appreciate Its Wild Animals?”. It’s a Zócalo/Grand Park event on Friday, August 9 at 6 pm.