Jim Olson recalls adventures traveling for the L.A. Natural History Museum

From meeting heads of state to collecting samples of plants deep in jungles or looking for a gorilla to photograph with the help of a local tribe, Jim Olson, a resident of Newbury Park, has had some of the most fascinating adventures as chief of exhibits for the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. He was in charge of creating accurate dioramas, and the museum decided the best way to do that is by going to the actual location. Through his work, he gained a truly remarkable perspective on humanity. “It was over a span of 27 years that I worked for the museum that I got to travel all over the world,” Olson said.

Olson’s favorite part about his job was the unexpected adventures he had meeting strangers and learning about them. “I got to work with a lot of interesting people,” Olson said, “from being with pygmies to meeting the Dalai Lama, meeting heads of state, presidents, the King of Sweden, President of Taiwan and billionaires. Billionaires, that you wouldn’t know that they had 25 cents in their pocket. I met people that thought they were millionaires and treated you like dirt because they felt they were so superior to you.”

When asked what he thought was important for young people to learn as soon as possible, he responded by stating his support for the public school system and encouraging parents to use the money they would have used for a private education to fund family trips to developing countries. “They can see on their own that not everybody is wearing designer shoes. Not everybody has a cell phone to see that. The way they live in the United States, the majority of people are living a lifestyle that puts them in the top 1% of the population of the world,” Olson said.

He recalled a story in which he and his wife were in Petra, Jordan. “This family, man, and a woman, a little girl sat down next to us and they started packing this food and they offered us some cake… they insisted that we have this cake. Turned out that this guy was a fighter pilot in the Jordanian Air Force, he had been shot down, he had three bullet wounds in his back. And, you know, you would never know that the guy was a fighter pilot or anything about them, but just because they were social and offered us the cake, it opened a door into learning something about these people in their culture,” he said. Olson emphasized how the way to learn about a culture was to meet people, and these people invited him to learn. “When you travel, and you see other cultures, and that people basically are all trying to get by no different than what you’re trying to do or I’m trying to do,” Olson said. “That’s the kind of thing that I’m referring to when I say, you can’t plan for that to happen, and yet when these things happen, they’re pretty amazing.”

Olson has met many incredible people through his travels, but possibly more remarkable than that is his distinct perspective. “For me, it’s about treating everybody the same. It’s why I got along with some of the people that were extremely wealthy. I didn’t treat them any differently than I would treat you or any other friends and I pulled jokes on them the same way I would on anybody else,” he said. “That was a philosophy that worked for me.”

It is clear that Olson has no regrets from his experiences. “I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat,” Olson said.

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