Staff Reporter

There are the usual museums where patrons walk through galleries and gaze at works of art. Then there's the new California Science Center in Exposition Park, where a multimedia system allows people to peer inside ceilings and walls.

It's just one of many new features of the rebuilt center, which opens to the public on Feb. 7.

"The (multimedia) exhibit is a hybrid of new technologies," said Tim Halloran, a designer at West Office Exhibit Design, which designed all but a few of the exhibits at the 245,000-square-foot center. "A lot of cutting-edge technology was used in unique ways for the Science Center, which means there are a lot of very new things there."

That could provide a major boost for the Exposition Park area near the Memorial Coliseum, which has struggled to attract the kind of cultural attention found in other parts of the city.

"There's been the perception that Exposition Park might not be a safe area," said Darryl Holter, chairman of the Figueroa Corridor Business Improvement District. "Having a new activity like the Science Center can bring more people in to see that this is not so."

Science Center Executive Director Jeffrey Rudolph kicked off a project to completely rebuild the state-owned Museum of Science and Industry when he assumed his post in 1987.

"The museum, as it was, had fallen behind in its ability to teach," Rudolph said. "We had agreement from a lot of local and state officials that it should be reinvented into something new and state-of-the-art."

The museum had been without a major remodeling since the mid-1970s, and many of its exhibits needed to be updated and presented with modern technology. For example, an exhibit on the development of a chicken embryo will be presented with the help of computer imaging instead of sitting still behind glass, as it did in the old museum.

Of the $130 million needed to rebuild the facility, $101 million came from the state, county and city and the rest from private donations.

Rudolph said the private fund raising has mostly gone well with donations from non-profit organizations such as the W.M. Keck Foundation and from corporate donors like Toyota. The California Science Center Foundation, its fund-raising body, is still seeking the last $1 million.

The new center ("museum" was scrapped because of its look-but-don't-touch connotations) has four exhibit areas: the "World of Life," where common life processes among many different species are studied; the "Creative World," where various technologies are examined; the "World of the Pacific," which has exhibits on Pacific Rim ecosystems; and "Worlds Beyond," exploring space and space travel.

The creation of the new building and its exhibits entailed a collaboration between numerous design and technology companies.

While Western Office Exhibit Design did the design work for the exhibits, it was up to subcontractors to build them. Local multimedia companies that specialize in movie production played a strong hand.

For example, Culver City-based Smith Entertainment Inc. was hired to build an exhibit called "BodyWorks Theater," the centerpiece of which is a 55-foot-tall animatronic figure called Tess.

In a 15-minute production, viewers watch as Tess converses with an animated figure on an adjacent screen. They chat about how a body reacts to a game of soccer that is being played on the screen.

As they talk, the transparent Tess' heart, lungs, nerves and other parts "function" with the aid of lighting, sound and animatronic systems produced by Smith Entertainment.

"The BodyWorks Theater was something that could be done especially well in Los Angeles," Rudolph said. "It uses special effects and technology originally made for Hollywood."

Bill Smith, a multimedia designer with West Office Exhibit Design, said the company had more creative opportunities than with other museums.

"Usually, we're given a box of a building where we install exhibits like you would bring in furniture," Smith said. "For the Science Center, we were able to tailor the building for exhibits."

One example is the "High Wire Bicycle" exhibit, situated 43 feet above the center's lobby and suspended between the walkway bridges that connect the building's second-floor areas.

On the High Wire Bicycle, visitors study gravity and balance by pedaling on a bike across a guidewire (there is a counterweight to help with balance and a net to catch anyone who falls).

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.