Future Shock, With a Beat: the Natural History Museum's First Fridays Returns

Dinosaurs, dioramas and dance. That’s been the staple of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s First Fridays series since 2005, mixing science and education with cocktails and music. As the name implies, it’s held the first Friday of every month, and the 2020 season arrives this week on March 6.

For more than a decade the Exposition Park museum has been turning its space into a lecture-meets-dance hall each spring, featuring DJs, bands and docent-led tours set up inside the exhibition space. It’s been a successful formula, but there is room to play with it, according to Laurel Robinson, program manager for the museum. Part of how the Natural History Museum tries to keep people coming back is to make each night unique, with specific topics and a wide host of musical guests, she says.

This year the museum that looks to the planet’s past is turning to the future. The theme of the 2020 events is “The Future is Now” and is starting with this week’s evening on the future of medicine.

“The irony [of the theme] is not lost on us,” Robinson told Los Angeles Downtown News. “I think one of the things that the museum is really interested in is being a space to talk about relevant current events. Our scientists are working to solve problems for our future.”

The main feature of the night is a panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Patt Morrison. She’s joined by two doctors — Alexis Komor and Roey Tzezana — for a conversation about medical apps, genetic modification tools and the other ways healthcare might evolve in the near future and long-term.

The rest of the season focuses on topics such as the future of environmental studies (April 3), design and architecture (May 1) and concludes with a night all about food (June 5), which also includes a culminating outdoor concert. Admission is free for museum members and $20 for non members.

Each edition of First Fridays starts at 5 p.m. with after-hours access into the museum. Visitors can check out the exhibitions, grab cocktails, or enjoy the live music on stage.

For the second year in a row, the Natural History Museum is also doing its “Secrets of the Vault” talks, at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The talks replaced the behind-the-scenes tours the museum used to lead, as a way to serve more people. It’s a one-on-one chat between a science writer and one of the museum’s specialists.

Along with the lectures and tours, First Fridays is also a dance party, and that requires some music. Robinson said that the museum works with music promoters Spaceland Presents to find the acts, with each night featuring a multi-act, diverse line-up of live performances, spanning genres. For the kickoff event, there’s art-punk act French Vanilla, singer Molly Lewis doing her whistling act Café Molly, and the dynamic dance duo Wajatta as the headliners.

There are also two DJ’s a night. This season’s resident DJ is KCRW’s Novena Carmel. She’ll be spinning each night in the African Mammal Hall, next to a large elephant. “It’s the best backdrop in the city,” she said.

In between her sets, DJ Josh Peace spins from 6-8:30 p.m. Carmel said that she’s focused on getting crowds moving, but wants to try and mix up more familiar dance tracks with artists people might not be aware of.

“I want it to be a learning experience. Maybe you come to the museum and learn from the lectures, but you also hear some new music,” Carmel said. “It’s also going to be different each night. I’ll try to play off [whichever band] is playing. For instance with this week with Wajatta, anything Reggie Watts does has an element of humor to it.”

Robinson said that part of why First Fridays has become a popular outing year after year is because it offers different points of entry for people of all backgrounds.

“Is it a KCRW DJ that they’re a fan of? Are they really interested in the scientific lectures and discussions that we feature each month, or are they just there for the live music?” Robinson said. “It’s a program that feeds both sides of your brain.”

First Fridays runs every first Friday of the month through June at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 W. Exposition Blvd. or nhm.org.

nslayton@timespublications.com.