See Los Angeles history through the ‘windshield of the car’

| July 27, 2023 | 0 Comments

VOLUNTEER DOCENT Diane Isaacs receives a Petersen Automotive Museum annual Award for Excellence.

Diane Isaacs was among the first to sign up to be a docent at the Petersen Automotive Museum after it opened its doors at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in June 1994.

“My interest was not so much in cars, but rather the history of Los Angeles through the windshield of the car — which was how I interpreted the mission of the museum,” Isaacs told us.

She’s been a volunteer at the museum ever since.

Is it fun being a docent?

“Absolutely. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun,” said the retired contract administrator for Sony.

The museum has about 175 volunteers, which include seasoned and trained docents, like the multi-award-winning docent Isaacs.

Tourgoers see up close a wide array of vehicles, fromPorsches, the Batmobile and other movie cars to early 20th-century models.

Gone are the dark rooms and historic Los Angeles dioramas once in the museum.

“This museum is nothing like that,” Isaacs says.

The Petersen was reopened in December 2015 after an extensive remodel. Its flashy red-and-silver race car exterior jazzes up the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. The new site also has expanded exhibit space. Following the remodel, the basement “Vault” of some 250 prized vehicles was opened to the public.

“The best part for me about touring,” Isaacs told us, “is when visitors see the connections as we discuss everything from history to physics, and they learn to appreciate what we offer at the museum — even if they came in dragging their feet because they thought all they were going to hear about was cars.”

Her efforts do not go unnoticed. She received the annual Award for Excellence at three of the past four volunteer awards dinners (2020’s was cancelled due to COVID-19 and she did not win in 2022 because she won a Volunteer of the Year Award).

TRIO in the museum’s “Vault” are (left to right) volunteer Chuck Sax, docent Dr. Martin Landau and volunteer Jerry Hirsch.

Docent Dr. Martin Landau’s interest in cars began when he was 3 years old, during a drive with his parents from Buffalo, New York, to Los Angeles in a new 1960 Mercury Comet coupe.

Later, as he acquired cars of his own, he held on to them.

“Somehow I bond with the girls I’ve driven. Starting with the ’67 Buick Skylark — my first love.”

He also fell in love with the museum upon his first visit.

He remembers when the museum building was the home of Ohrbach’s Department Store, with the May Company (now the Academy Museum) across the street.

As a docent, besides “being surrounded by some of the most beautiful and unique cars on the planet,” he enjoys “working alongside staff who are amongst the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and know, and I am in awe of their wealth of automotive knowledge…”

He also gets pleasure in “sharing what I know of cars with guests and seeing their expressions when they learn something they never knew before — eyes widening, mouths agape!

“It surprises me I didn’t wind up in the automotive world as a career. I guess I caught the biology / science bug that overtook my automotive bug! Diagnosing people vs cars.” (His longtime private practice in the treatment of varicose veins is just a block west on Wilshire.)

Key ambassadors

The volunteer program is one of the most important programs of the museum, Petersen Volunteer Manager Max Tufeld tells us.

“Our volunteers are the proud face of the museum and have been key ambassadors sharing information about our institution and its collection.”

Here is a varied list of roles which volunteers can fill:

Gallery Interpreter: Volunteers in this position learn about the various cars and motorcycles on display at the museum. These are the volunteers who most visitors will get to meet during their Petersen visits.

Discovery Center Attendant: Volunteers in the Discovery Center assist with an interactive Lego station,  a story time program and others. “Anyone interested in working with kids, this is the position for you!” Tufeld tells us.

Highlight Tour Guide: They lead tours for a wide variety of in-depth Petersen Museum experiences.

School Visits Educator: Here volunteers can help to inspire the next generation of automotive enthusiasts with the Petersen’s school tours. The program brings in thousands of students every year.

Special Event Support: These volunteers become a part of a wide variety of world-class events at the Petersen, ranging from car shows to educational outreach events.

Volunteers also can help out by documenting events and tours by taking photos.

The museum is host to an  annual volunteer Holiday Party and Appreciation Dinner. Volunteers take part in monthly meetings and go on a variety of volunteer field trips.  Additional volunteer benefits include free parking in the museum’s parking structure and guest passes for friends and family.

In return, volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of eight hours per month. To join the Petersen team, apply at

To arrange a docent tour, visit

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