Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 1

I’ve spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of southern California, visiting natural history museums, zoos, and botanic gardens, as well as seeing a fair assortment of marine mammals. Suffice it to say, my (endlessly patient) travel partner Stephanie and I ended the trip with a bit of sensory overload. I had planned to start off with a brief travelogue post and save more thorough analysis for later, but as usual I’ve gone and written much more than I intended.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum

Howard Ball’s famous mammoth statues in La Brea’s lake pit.

The La Brea Tar Pits (a.k.a. the the tar tar pits) is an iconic fossil locality in downtown Los Angeles. I visited  in my single-digit years, but I remember the site better from documentaries like Denver the Last Dinosaur. The region’s asphalt seeps have been known to local people for thousands of years, and they were first commercially mined in the 1700s, when Rancho La Brea was a Mexican land grant. The animal bones commonly found in the asphalt were seen as a nuisance until 1875, when William Denton of Wellesley College identified a large tooth from Rancho La Brea as belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat. Several years of largely unrestricted fossil collecting followed, until the Hancock family that had come to own the land gave exclusive collecting rights to the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) in 1913.

Within two years, museum paleontologists had collected about a million bones, mostly from large Pleistocene animals like mammoths, ground sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. This enormous abundance meant that the La Brea fossils were useful not only as research specimens but as trade goods. The LACM amassed much of its present-day fossil collection by trading La Brea fossils to other museums.

The Hancock family donated the 23 acres around the La Brea asphalt seeps to Los Angeles County in 1924. From that point on, the area functioned as a public park, where visitors could learn about ice age California and even watch ongoing excavations. Park facilities and exhibits expanded gradually over the ensuing decades. Sculptures of bears and ground sloths by Herman Beck were added to the grounds in the late 1920s. In 1952, a concrete bunker over one of the excavation sites became the first La Brea museum. The LACM board commissioned the site’s most iconic display – the trio of mammoth statues – in 1965, and sculptor Howard Ball installed them in 1968.

The George C. Page Museum, plus a man who wouldn’t move.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened in 1977. The remarkable Brutalist building is adorned by a fiberglass frieze depicting ice age animals in a savanna environment. The aluminum frame holding up the frieze also contains an atrium of tropical plants, which the indoor exhibit halls encircle. Architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton designed the museum to fit organically into the established park setting, and to subliminally reflect the fossil excavations it celebrates. The building appears to be erupting from the ground, much like the asphalt and the fossils therein. The entrance is below ground level, so visitors must descend a ramp to meet the fossils at their point of origin.

The giant camel Camelops hesternus (front) with adult and juvenile mastodons (back). Those logs were also hauled out of the asphalt seeps.

Panthera atrox was apparently more like a giant jaguar than a lion. Small-by-comparison Smilodon fatalis in the back.

In many ways, the Page Museum is now a museum of a museum. Most of the interior exhibits, including the fossil mounts designed by Eugene Fisher*, are the same as they were in 1977. Photos show that the exhibit halls, prep labs, and collections areas have changed little in the last 40 years. And that’s okay! The museum building and the outdoor displays around it have been part of the Los Angeles landscape for decades, and cherished by generations of visitors. To the museum’s credit, the 1970s exhibits were well ahead of their time. Windows onto the prep lab and collections would be right at home in modern “inside out” museums, and an oft-repeated message that microfossils (such as insects, birds, rodents, and pollen) are more informative than megafauna fossils vis-à-vis paleoclimate and ancient environments is still very relevant to the field of paleontology today.

That isn’t to say there is nothing new to see. Newer signage around the park grounds does an excellent job re-interpreting older displays, especially those that are now considered inaccurate. For example, Howard Ball’s mammoth statues are probably among the most photographed paleoart installations in the world, but they completely misrepresent the way most of the animals found at La Brea actually died. Ball’s female mammoth is hip-deep in a man-made lake filling in an old asphalt quarry. As the signage (and tireless tour guides) explains, the animals trapped here thousands of years ago actually became stuck in asphalt seeps that were six inches deep or less. Meanwhile, while the classic friezes and murals throughout the Page Museum depict savanna-like landscapes, more recent analysis of microfossils demonstrates that the area was actually a fairly dense woodland.

Turkeys, condors, eagles, and storks are among the more unusual fossil mounts at the Page Museum.

There are two main reasons that the Page Museum is a must-see. First, it provides an in-depth view of a single prehistoric ecosystem. As mentioned, LACM traded La Brea fossils to all sorts of other museums, so chances are you’ve already seen a La Brea Smilodon, Paramylodon, or dire wolf. The Page Museum has these animals, but it also has rarely-seen creatures like ice age turkeys, condors, and coyotes. I counted 25 mounted skeletons in total, to say nothing of the hundreds of smaller specimens. My favorite display was a Smilodon skull growth series, where you can see how the adult saber teeth erupt and push out the baby sabers. In addition, the Page Museum stands right next to the La Brea fossil quarries, past and present. The museum and the park that preceded it were conceived as places where the public could see science in action. Researchers have been uncovering fossils at La Brea for over a hundred years, and visitors have been watching over their shoulders the entire time. That alone makes La Brea a very special place.

*All the La Brea mounts (at the Page Museum or elsewhere) are composites. To my knowledge no articulated remains have ever been recovered from the asphalt seeps. As Stephanie pointed out, the skull of the Equus occidentalis mount actually belonged to a significantly younger animal than the mandible. 

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

This Tyrannosaurus growth series is the centerpiece of the LACM Dinosaur Hall.

Our next stop was the Page Museum’s parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which I will continue to abbreviate as LACM for consistency). LACM actually features two fossil exhibits: the 2010 Age of Mammals Hall and the 2011 Dinosaur Hall. Both were part of a $135 million project to restore and update much of the LACM building, which first opened in 1913. While the two halls were developed concurrently by different teams, they are architecturally very similar. Parallel mezzanines flank spacious central aisles, which maximizes usable space in the two-story rooms and allows visitors to view most of the mounted skeletons from ground level or from above.

The primary strength of both the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall is that they look really good. New skylights and newly uncovered bay windows yield plenty of natural light. Primary-colored panels provide interesting backdrops for the specimens, and fossil mounts on the ground and in the air keep visitors looking in all directions. These exhibits were clearly designed to look incredible from the moment you enter the room, and the abundant natural light means they photograph quite well.

Suspended skeletons make use of the vertical space and keep visitors looking all around the exhibit.

Triceratops and Mamenchisaurus at the front end of the Dinosaur Hall.

LACM’s mammal collection has been built up over the last century, while the dinosaur specimens were mostly collected by Luis Chiappe’s Dinosaur Institute in the decade preceding the exhibit’s opening. Nevertheless, both exhibits feature an uncommon diversity of beautifully-prepared fossils. I was particularly taken by the metal fixtures constructed to display incomplete skulls of Augustynolophus and Tyrannosaurus. The mounted skeletons were handled by two different companies: Research Casting International did the mammals and Phil Fraley Productions did the dinosaurs. I actually like the mammal mounts slightly better. There’s a greater range of interesting poses, and they don’t suffer from Fraley’s signature exploding chests.

The Poebrotherium, Hoplophoneus, and Hyracodon mounts are full of life and character.

A metalwork frame artfully shows the missing parts of this Augustynolophus skull.

All that said, there is a surprising divergence in the quality of interpretation between the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall. On this front, the Age of Mammals Hall is better by far. There is an open floor plan that visitors can circulate freely, but everything comes back to three main ideas posted near the entrance: continents move, climates change, mammals evolve. In no particular order, the exhibit demonstrates how Cenozoic mammals diversified in response to the environmental upheaval around them.

On the ground floor, one tableau shows how dogs, horses, rhinos, and camels evolved to move swiftly across the emergent grasslands of the Miocene. Another area covers how mammals grew larger to adapt to an ice age climate. Overhead, a whale, sea cow, sea lion, and desmostylian illustrate four independent lineages that evolved to make use of marine resources. Exhibits on the mezzanine level focus on how paleontologists learn about prehistoric mammals. One area compares different sorts of teeth and feet. Another explains how pollen assemblages can be used to determine the average temperature and moisture of a particular time and place, while drill cores illustrate how a region’s environment changed over time. Although the exhibit as a whole has no time axis, it does an excellent job conveying how evolution works at an environmental scale.

The addition of dogs, camels, and rhinos makes for an informative twist on the classic horse evolution exhibit.

Struthiomimus is accompanied by a modern ostrich and tundra swan.

By comparison, the Dinosaur Hall doesn’t have any obvious guiding themes. The exhibit is a grab-bag of topics, and to my eyes, specimens and labels appear to be placed wherever they fit. Jurassic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are surrounded by displays about the end-Cretaceous extinction. Carnotaurus of Cretaceous Argentina is paired with Camptosaurus of Jurassic Colorado. Mamenchisaurus shares a platform with distantly-related Thescelosaurus, which lived 80 million years later on the other side of the world. An explanation of what defines a dinosaur is confusingly juxtaposed with non-dinosaurian marine reptiles. If there’s any logic here, I didn’t see it. This is accentuated by the fact that the label copy is no more specific than a run-of-the-mill dinosaur book for kids. It all feels very generalized and unambitious, especially compared to the Age of Mammals Hall. I would have liked to see more information on what makes these particular specimens special, as well as how they were found, prepared, and interpreted. I suppose it’s up to the visitor whether an exhibit like this can get by on looks alone.

And so concludes day one of our trip. Next time, the Raymond M. Alf Museum and places south!

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, history of science, LACM, mammals, museums, paleoart, reviews

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