Better Know a Museum: Rancho La Brea

Hey there every peoples!

Thought I’d get in a new post before I start school tomorrow.

I spent New Year’s Eve in Hancock Park down in Los Angeles. Anyone with an interest in paleontology should know this name. If not then they must live under a rock! Hancock Park is home to the La Brea Tar Pits, one of the most famous fossil sites in the world. Tens of thousands of people flock to the site each year to marvel at the wonderfully preserved bones of giant ice age beasts. The collections of fossils are a hotbed of research, for they give us one of the most complete pictures of an ancient ecosystem paleontologists could ever ask for.

A reconstructed scene on the shores of the tar lake at Rancho La Brea

The site, also known as Rancho La Brea (Spanish for “ranch of tar”) was first explored by geologists in 1901. The asphalt pools were being harvested to help pave the streets of Los Angeles. As the pools were being drained workers began finding the bones of animals. At first they thought they were the remains of cattle that had become mired in the tar. One discovery changed all of that: the skull of a saber-toothed cat. Suddenly it was obvious that these weren’t livestock remains. Continued excavation revealed the bones of extinct beasts such as mammoths, horses, ground sloths, lions, and other such creatures. UC Berkeley carried out initial excavations but soon the newly founded Los Angeles Natural History Museum took over operations. As they excavated the pits, more and more fossils were uncovered. After decades of excavating the museum’s basement was overflowing with ice age fossils. So in 1975 construction began on an on site museum to house the still growing collections of fossils. The George C. Page Museum opened in 1977 and has changed little ever since.

While most tar pits ran dry of both asphault and fossils, a few active pits remain in the park today. One of these, Pit 91, is still yielding fossils, even after 60 years of work. And while Rancho La Brea had yielded so much, there was still a lot we had to learn. Most early collections focused on the large mammal bones. It was only recently, about 30 years ago, that scientists realized that microfossils such as reptiles, insects, small mammals, and plant seeds and pollen can yield valuable information on the ancient land’s climate and environment. For most of that time Pit 91 was the only active source of microfossils. But in 2006 researchers at Rancho La Brea caught the break of a lifetime. While construction workers were excavating a pit for the Museum of Art’s new underground parking structure, they uncovered the remains of buried tar pits full of fossils. Paleontologists scrambled to excavate the fossils so as to not interfere with construction schedules. But given the painstaking work of uncovering a paleontological site, this was going to be near impossible. But then someone came up with the bright idea of digging around the deposits and encasing them in tree boxes. That way the fossil deposits could be extracted intact and then moved to another part of the park where they could be excavated at leisure. The project yielded 23 boxes of fossil deposits (including a nearly complete mammoth), thus earning the name “Project 23”. After a couple of years of work the project has yielded valuable new fossils, both big and small. Researchers think the project has the potential to double the Page Museum’s collections and offer exciting new data on ancient Los Angeles.

Project 23

Despite this bountiful new find, the museum itself has changed little in the 30 years since it opened. They have put up a few cases of material from Project 23, including a display about a partial “lion” skeleton known as “Fluffy”. While the Page is one of my favorite museums, there is a lot of room for improvement. The skeletons, while numerous, are in simple static displays high up on elevated platforms. Platforms annoy me because they exaggerate the size of the animals and don’t allow you to fully get a feel for it. And each skeleton has a short description plaque that doesn’t tell you much. There are other displays that discuss the science behind Rancho La Brea but they aren’t terribly informative. The museum also features a large preparation lab, which is expansive and often busy. The last couple times I have been visited nearly half the lab was taken up by their new mammoth. Whether or not the museum will get the overhaul it needs is uncertain. Its parent institute, the LA Natural History Museum, is currently spending $135 million on renovations in anticipation of their centennial. So it may be a while before the Page Museum gets the tender loving care it so desperately needs.

Despite its shortcomings, I would recommend dropping by if you’re ever in LA. The displays, while not too sophisticated, are nonetheless of a quality you can expect from higher up institutions. Their fossil lab is reason enough to visit. And the park, complete with a few remaining tar pits, provides a nice little splash of nature in a sea of urban development. Let’s hope this world renowned site and museum gets it’s much deserved update in the future.

Till next time!