Meet the Museum: La Brea Tar Pits

Please welcome Ryan, a new guest blogger here at Time Scavengers!

Ryan here –

This June I attended the North American Paleontological Conference in Riverside, California. In the middle of the conference we had a field trip day and I opted for the museum trip with guided tours of collections and work areas. It was nice to have someone else deal with the traffic for us on our way into Los Angeles to see the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is open daily from 9:30 AM – 5 PM. Admission is $14/adult, $6/child (3-12), $11/senior (62+), and $11/student (with ID). Follow the museum on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) for updates, news, and events!

Scene on the exterior of the museum.

At the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (one of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County) there is plenty to take in. The museum sits within a city park and even before you go inside the building there is plenty to see. The pond in an old mined out asphalt pit at the main entrance bubbles with gases and looks dark enough to be actual tar. Here an ancient scene is set at the edge of the pond as a statue of a mammoth appears to be trapped and what could be its mate and offspring call from the edge of the shore. The sense of desperation is real.

Walking around the park leaf littered tar seeps are fenced off, and whiffs of volatile gases took my mind between memories of a road construction site, recent roof repair efforts back at home, and imagined scenes of natural history that produced all of the fossils I was about to see. It is clear how deceiving the tar pits would have been to animals, and I felt a rising anxiety as I imagined getting stuck in the viscous material.

Active excavation site at the museum.

We saw where museum volunteers, interns, and researchers cleaned out fossils from a pit where the asphalt has been – and continues to be – pumped out. The workers were focused within a squared section of the grid laid out in the pit, and were busy measuring the location of items they were removing. Lower in the pit tar-bathed fossils lay partially exposed awaiting their turn to be collected. Near the open pit, crates of material collected during a nearby parking garage construction project were being processed by another group of interns. This material has hardened and required some chemical processing to be cleaned off and release the bones. In both the pits and the covered work spaces of the crates, plenty of fresh air was fanned in and foul air vented out.

Processing of material.

 

Inside the museum I was privy to one of many storage areas for the enormous quantity of material that has been collected from the tar pits. I walked down a few hundred feet of cabinet lined corridors with slide out trays from floor to ceiling and shelves with padded boxes that were only interrupted by an occasional workstation and computer. Our guide pointed down one row and indicated it would all be herbivores, then another that would be all carnivores.

Fishbowl lab where visitors can look in on active research and work.

Later we were led to the “Fish Bowl Lab” where as many as a dozen volunteers clean and repair specimens and gather microfossils from the tar that coats other fossils. The entire work space curves out into the main display area of the museum and affords museum patrons the opportunity to observe their work. This is a site common at many museums today, but was new and novel when put in place at this museum, and is still one of the best executions of such a space that I have seen.

There are so many fossils (well over three million at this point) that when I finally made my way out to the public display my favorite turned out to be the wall that was covered in hundreds of dire wolf skulls. It gives a sense of how much information is being discovered at La Brea. The exhibits showcase the fauna both in fossil form and in fleshed out full size models. The history of the museum itself is shown through photos and documents, and one of the prettiest murals depicting deep time graces a wall near the 3D theater. The interactive activity with metal rods and tar was informative, and while straining to lift the thick rod from the tar I more fully appreciated the the terrible, repeated events that made all of these fossils and the amount of effort currently being done at La Brea to uncover so many fossils.

With a scale this time, large specimens on the left and drawer space on the right.

 

Example of specimens in the shelf space.
Oversized specimens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was bad about writing down the names of everyone who gave us the behind the scenes tour, but they were so gracious in taking time out of their day to show us around and allow our group to take up an entire 3D movie time slot.

After a picnic at the park around La Brea I went to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at the Webb School in Claremont. I’ll share about that part of the NAPC museum field trip in my next installment.

 

Iconic wall of dire wolves.
Beautifully done display wall
Advertisements