Museums

The best art, history, culture and science museums in LA

Museums

15 essential museums to visit in Los Angeles

Don't leave LA—whether you're a resident or a tourist—without seeing these truly great LA attractions.

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Free museums and admission days

Art

Getty Center

Recommended: Getty Center to-go guide Los Angeles's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the hitherto disparate entities of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that's the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and the landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a kind of monastic retreat designed for James Bond. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for by the panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west all the way around to Downtown in the east.Once you've parked at the bottom and taken the electric tram ride up the hill, one thing becomes apparent: it's a big place. To the west of the plaza is a café, a restaurant and the circular Research Institute, which houses one of the world's largest art and architecture libraries, and a roster of public exhibits. Beyond it is the Central Garden, designed by Robert Irwin. North are the other institutes (some off-limits to the public) and the Harold M Williams Auditorium, where talks and symposia alternate with concerts and film screenings. And to the south, up a grand Spanish Steps-style stairway, is the museum lobby, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and often-excellent temporary

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Museums

Getty Villa

In 1974, oil magnate J Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a faux villa in Malibu, based on the remains of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Derision from critics and ridicule from art experts followed, but no matter—the Getty grew into a beloved local attraction. In 1997, the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, and the villa was closed for conversion into a museum for Getty's collection of Mediterranean antiquities. When it reopened in 2006, part-restored and part-transformed by architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado, the press was rather kinder.There are roughly 1,200 artifacts on display at any one time, dated between 6,500 BC and 500 AD, and organized under such themes as Gods and Goddesses and Stories of the Trojan War. If you're a novice, start in the Timescape room (numbered as room 113), where a wall-mounted frieze maps the different civilizations along with the art and statuary they created.You could easily spend a few hours idly wandering through the galleries, but some exhibits really stand out. In room 101C, look for an amazing Greek perfume container that dates back to around 400 BC: it's incredibly elegant and, despite its age, entirely intact. Room 101 holds a collection of disparate items relating to Greek gods, among them a 2,500-year-old monumental statue of Aphrodite in limestone and marble, and some delicate painted oil jars. The outlandish, stag-spouted drinking horn in room 105 is gloriously absurd. And in ro

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Museums

Hammer Museum

Industrialist Armand Hammer founded this museum, primarily to house his own collection. Now, under the ownership of UCLA, the Hammer stages fascinating themed shows of modern art, photography and design. The former have included everything from video installations to American comic art; the latter are often drawn from UCLA's Grunwald collection of graphic arts. The shows are supplemented by the Hammer Projects series, focused on emerging artists; works from Hammer's collections; and an excellent, largely free events program that takes in music, films, symposia and so on. Committed to showcasing the works of underrepresented artists from all over the world, the Hammer's multimedia exhibits rotate frequently, so it's worth checking the calendar often. Admission is free on Thursdays, and the museum's open-air courtyard cafe, Ammo, makes for a great post-gallery pit stop.

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Annenberg Space for Photography

Specializing in photography, this newly founded, privately funded space takes an innovative approach to displaying its digital and print works. More than just images on a wall, exhibits at the Annenberg often incorporate videos and/or music, creating a more dynamic experience for the visitor. The free admission and $1 parking help attract a younger crowd to the otherwise more corporate neighborhood. (It is housed adjacent to the intentionally intimidating CAA offices.) Bring a date on a Saturday evening and spend 30 minutes wandering through the gallery before catching a movie across the street at the Century City AMC. During the summer, Saturday evening concerts in partnership with KCRW turn the space into a vibrant hot spot.

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Museums in LA

La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

Back in 1875, a group of amateur paleontologists discovered animal remains in the pits at Rancho La Brea, which bubbled with asphalt from a petroleum lake under what is now Hancock Park. Some 130 years later, the pros are still at work here, having dragged more than 3.5 million fossils from the mire. Many of these specimens are now on display in this delightfully old fashioned museum, which can't have changed much since it opened in 1972. Reserve a spot on the Excavator Tour (free with museum admission), which includes stops at the Fossil Lab, the Lake Pit, the newly re-opened Observation Pit and Project 23, where you can see archaeologists at work. Inside, check out the multimedia experience Ice Age Encounter, and the simple, instructive displays of items found in the pits. Most are bones – of jackrabbits, gophers, a 160lb bison, skunks and a 15,000lb Columbian mammoth, plus an extraordinary wall of 400 wolf skulls – though there are also early cave drawings and human accoutrements such as bowls and hair pins.

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Museums

Natural History Museum

The NHM's original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in Los Angeles, opening with Exposition Park itself back in 1913. Its massive collection spans more than 35 million objects and specimens (not all of them are on display at any one time), making it second in size only to the Smithsonian's. It's an immense place, so it's well worth planning your visit. Those with only a little time to spare should head directly to the truly dazzling collections in the Gem & Mineral Hall, where the exhibits include a 4,644-carat topaz, a 2,200-carat opal sphere and a quartz crystal ball which, with a diameter of 10.9 in and a weight of 65lb, is one of the biggest on earth. A six-year, $135-million program of renovations wrapped up in 2013, including the addition of 108,000 square feet of indoor space. The Otis Booth Pavilion now welcomes visitors into the museum from the north with a six-story light-filled glass entrance, featuring a stunning, 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton. Twelve new galleries and five exhibits have opened, including "Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture," which examines the Los Angeles region's history from Native Americans to the Catholic missions, the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars, to the present day. Outdoors, the Nature Gardens features 3.5-acre urban wilderness with a pond, dry creek bed, beautiful landscaping and other features that attract local critters. The Nature Lab features interactive multimedia and live animal habitats, t

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Art

MOCA Grand Ave

The main branch of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) houses thousands of artworks crafted from 1940 until now. Spend half an hour or an entire afternoon absorbing contemporary pieces from lesser known artists, punctuated by sightings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock works. For just $12 ($7 students and seniors), you can have your run of the place, including a free audio tour and access to outdoor installations. If you plan your visit for a Thursday night between 5pm and 8pm, admission to MOCA Grand Ave is on the house.

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Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Recommended: See Top 10 works at LACMA While LACMA's collections have long been the most impressive in the city, the 20-acre complex of buildings in which they've been housed has been quite the reverse. A bewildering jumble of architectural styles blighted further still by abysmally poor signage, they never really did the artworks justice. At last, though, things have improved. Funding difficulties and public outrage forced the museum to abandon Rem Koolhaas's original plans to rebuild almost the entire complex from scratch in 2002. However, Renzo Piano's subsequent blueprint for a less dramatic and less expensive redevelopment of the museum did get the go-ahead. The aptly named Transformation is still a work in progress, but the museum is already a lot more visitor-friendly (attendance increased from 600,000 in 2005 to nearly 1,000,000 in 2011). It all starts with the entrance: the BP Grand Entrance Pavilion gives the museum a proper focal point. The entrance includes the installation of Chris Burden's Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around LA, restored to working order.The Broad Contemporary Art Museum (widely known as BCAM), funded by LA philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, is home to a dazzling selection of modern work. Spread over three floors, the selection of pieces on display is strong on American artists—there's a very impressive Richard Serra piece on the first floor; Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer are among the artists r

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Things to do

Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens

The bequest of entrepreneur Henry E Huntington is now one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Los Angeles region. It's also not a destination that you should attempt to explore in full during a single day: between the art, the library holdings and the spreadeagled outdoor spaces, there's plenty to see, and most of it is best enjoyed at lingering leisure rather than as part of a mad day-long dash.Once you've paid your admission, you'll be close to the main library, which holds more than six million items and is open only to researchers (apply for credentials in advance of your visit). However, some of its most notable holdings, among them a Gutenberg Bible and the earliest known edition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, are always on display in the adjoining exhibition hall, alongside regular themed temporary shows. The art collection is almost as notable as the library's collection. Built in 1910, the main house is home to a very impressive collection of British art, which includes Gainsborough's The Blue Boy alongside works by Blake, Reynolds and Turner. And over in the newer Scott and Erburu Galleries, you'll find a selection of American paintings.However, despite all these cultural glories, the Huntington's highlights are outdoors in its vast jigsaw of botanical gardens, arguably the most glorious in the entire Los Angeles region. The 207 acres of gardens, 120 acres of which are open to the public, are divided into a variety of themes: the Desert Garden, now a centur

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Ongoing museum exhibitions

Art

Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road

Taken over the course of six months at the Bel-Air residence of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, this exhibition from LA photographer Catherine Opie presents portraits of rooms, closets, shoes, clothing and jewelry that depict an indirect, yet deeply intimate, portrait of a life defined by wealth and fame. Photograph: ​Catherine Opie, Andy Warhol to Elizabeth (Self-Portrait Artist) from the 700 Nimes Road Portfolio, 2010-2011, pigment print, 16 ½ x 22 in., courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York & Hong Kong

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Art

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957

North Carolina's experimental Black Mountain College managed to support some of the most influential contemporary thinkers in its short 24-year lifespan. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Josef and Anni Albers, and Merce Cunningham studied and taught at the progressive liberal arts college. The Hammer Museum is examining BMC's legacy with more than 250 objects by nearly 100 artists who attended the interdisciplinary school, including two soundscapes, a grand piano and a dance floor for live performances. Josef Albers, Leaf Study IX. c. 1940. Leaves on paper, 28 x 24 ¾ inches. (c) The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging 4 Art.

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Art

Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints

Long before we began to associate "noir" with crime movies, it was just a French word for "black." But even then, "noir," was more than just a color; beginning around 1840, French artists began depicting shadowy, often nocturnal or twilight scenes in which forms emerge and sink back into darkness. The Getty is mounting an exhibition of drawings and prints from Rodolphe Bresdin, Maxime Lalanne, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and others that examine dream states as well as the use of new—at the time—black drawing materials.  Photograph: Apparition (detail), about 1880–1890. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Charcoal, fusain and black pastel. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Art

Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts

Before we could bounce messages back and forth via wires and satellites, books were our primary way of sharing and discovering experiences beyond our own. This exhibition from at the Getty features illuminated manuscripts and painted book arts from the 9th through the 17th centuries that bring to life both the real and imagined places that made the jump from interconnected human thought to paper. Photograph: Scenes from the Life of David (detail), leaf from the Morgan Picture Bible, about 1250, Northern France, unknown artist. The J. Paul Getty Museum

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Art

Alex Israel at The Huntington

Los Angeles-based artist Alex Israel is staging an "intervention" at the Huntington Library. Sixteeen of his paintings and sculptures plus two site-specific murals will be integrated into the museum's Gilded Age mansion. Driven by the cult of celebrity, Israel's bright, pop culture-inspired pieces provide a sharp contemporary contrast to the gallery's ornate decor and classic European artwork.

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Art

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium

The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will both be taking part in "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium." The two museums will run concurrent exhibitions about the late, provocative portrait photographer. The Getty's technical-leaning show (March 15–July 31, 2016) will delve into Mapplethorpe's disciplined studio practice, figure studies and legacy, while LACMA's creative-minded exhibition (March 20–July 31, 2016) will focus on his methods, sources and creative processes. More than 300 mostly black-and-white portraits, still lifes and nudes will be on display between the two museums—they jointly acquired most of the art and archives from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 2011, including private correspondence, books and ephemera from the late artist's estate. In addition, LACMA will be featuring 30 complementary works from other artists as part of "Physical: Sex and the Body in the 1980s." Photograph: Self-Portrait, 1980, Robert Mapplethorpe. Photograph: Courtesy Getty/LACMA

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