Los Angeles museum guide: Best off-the-beaten path museums & attractions
Looking for something different to do? From car culture to Cold War propaganda, our offbeat Los Angeles museum guide reveals the city's best lesser-known attractions.
Wed Sep 19 2012
Photograph by Jakob N. Layman
- Price band: 1/4
Don't be fooled by the name: this is not some kind of Spielbergian dinosaurland. It's far more interesting than that. Hidden behind an unassuming, windowless storefront, David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology presents itself as a repository of curiosities (opera singer Madelena Delani, who suffered from terrible memory failings), scientific wonders (a bat that can fly through walls) and artistic miracles (the so-called "microminiatures" of Soviet-Armenian refugee Hagop Sandaldjian, who painted impossibly tiny sculptures that fit within the eye of a needle with plenty of room to spare).Fact is mixed with the fantastical, through the elaborate and beautiful treatment (dramatically lit vitrines, audiovisual displays) accorded to everything from the history of trailer parks to 17th-century Renaissance man Athanasius Kircher. Which exhibits, if any, are bona fide? Which, if any, are satirical? And, most crucially of all, does it matter? A subversive, witty and brilliant enterprise, the Museum of Jurassic Technology challenges the very nature of what a museum is or should be, while also taking its place as one of the most fascinating attractions in the entire city. Wholly unique and unreservedly recommended.
- 9341 Venice Blvd
Both a gallery and a center of study, CLUI researches and chronicles all forms of land use, from uranium cell disposal sites to views from highways. From their website: “We believe that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription, that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing.” It’s a mandate that’s at once all-encompassing and somewhat obscure—the best way to understand it may be to go on one of the center’s popular bus tours where knowledgeable guides might explain, say, the cultural impact of the world’s largest Frito Lay factory.
- 9331 Venice Blvd
Set in a historic theater in the West Adams neighborhood (worth a look around for its streets of well-preserved Victorian houses), the Panorama aims to pay tribute to the tradition of 18th- and 19th-century 360-degree panorama paintings, which were once a form of popular entertainment. The Ancillary Salon hosts changing exhibits. Outside, a deceptively lush garden features a scary Carnivorous Plant and Sinister Foliage exhibit.
- 1122 West 24th St
Dedicated to "the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering," the Institute for Figuring's accessible approach to complex scientific and mathematical theories has won its director Margaret Werthelm a spot in the TED pantheon as well as a cast of fascinating collaborators (from the Andy Warhol Museum to the National Smithsonian). There's a changing main exhibition—examining everything from snowflakes to the Higgs Boson—and three interactive Project Rooms that invite visitors to literally play with ideas. You don’t need to understand physics to be charmed!
- 990 N. Hill St, #180
How to categorize this space? Installations have included a magical woodland and a picturesque shipwreck; events range from a group weeping-and-laughter ceremony to a clothing-optional film screening to a gourmet ham bar—and that’s all in a single event! Machine Project provides support for its artist collaborators to throw all manner of happenings (stay informed via its website). Events happen around twice a week, usually in the evenings.
- 1200 N Alvarado Ave
- Price band: 2/4
Technically, this is a store, but unless you’re in the market for a bottle of Time Travel Sickness Pills or a can of Mammoth Chunks, chances are you’ll be doing more gawking than buying. If you do pick up a Robot Toupee (only $4.99!), your cash will be going to a good cause. The Time Travel Mart supports 826LA, a nonprofit founded by author Dave Eggers, which provides one-on-one tutoring to local students. It’s part of a national network of tutoring centers and stores, which also include a Pirate Supply Store in SF and The Bigfoot Research Institute of Greater Boston.
- 1714 W Sunset Blvd
The city becomes your museum on these popular double-decker bus tours that take you past Los Angeles landmarks like the enormous Western Exterminator Company sign, featuring a top-hatted man with a mallet threatening a row of tiny rats. Sitting on the top of the bus will put you eye-to-eye with the gorgeous vintage theater signs on Broadway. The museum's stationary location is also on the move—formerly located on the edge of Skid Row Downtown, MONA is relocating to Glendale and will reopen in a custom-designed venue come 2014.
An earnest exhibition compiled by a young, Cold War–obsessed academic, this small collection is somewhat appropriately located in an anonymous office park, making it feel like an undercover operation. There are Stasi artifacts here, along with propaganda posters, remnants of the East German counterculture and segments of the Berlin Wall.
“Wende” is the German word for “turning point,” referring to the period from the fall of the Wall to reunification, though the museum focuses more closely on the Cold War period in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. So why is it in LA? According to founder Justinian Jampol, the geographic remove lends critical distance. Case in point: the Wende’s acquisition of East German ruler Erich Honecker’s personal papers, which Honecker requested be housed in a non-German institution.
- 5741 Buckingham Pkwy, Ste E
For an unflinching look at black history and Americana, check out Oran Z’s massive collection of African-American artifacts, including everything from slave shackles to once-popular "Mamie" cookie jars to a flag signed by Barack Obama. The President is also present in a more concrete form, as a crude wax figure standing alongside the First Lady. Other significant black political figures (Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas), entertainers (Scott Joplin, Dorothy Dandridge) and inventors (George Washington Carver) are rendered in wax—constituting a slightly bizarre looking honor guard—and placed in dioramas throughout the building. If you’re lucky, Oran Z himself will conduct your tour.
- 3742 W Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
- Price band: 1/4
The eleven dioramas in this museum were built by disciples of Swami Prabhupada, who traveled to India at his behest to learn the ancient method of clayworking. Their works take visitors through the lessons of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu scripture that inspired Gandhi with its calls for unselfish actions. Dimly lit and slightly creepy—like all the best dioramas are—this 45-minute narrated tour was built to pique curiosity about Transcendentalism. If you find yourself hungry for more, go next door to Govinda’s, a Hare Krishna–run restaurant, where you’ll always find someone ready to discuss spritual matters over a vegan spread.
- 3764 Watseka Ave