This is a remarkable museum. For one, it’s a beautiful (and beautifully organized) building. For another, it has the distinction of sitting on top of the very deposits that have yielded the countless fossils that occupy the displays.
As you approach the museum you pass by a water-filled pond that was once a tar quarry. There are life-sized replicas of a Columbia Mammoth family — one of whom has been “caught” in the tar hidden beneath the water. This tableau is artifice, of course, but the sulfurous gasses that continue to bubble up into this still-active “asphalt seep” are the real deal, and provide a quietly stunning reminder of a still very active Earth.
Inside the circular museum, one walks past display after display of the mounted fossils that make up a rich catalog of extinct fauna that once roamed the Los Angeles area. The tar pits (in their time) captured every kind of organism, from the truly stupendous Columbian Mammoth to delicate dragon flies. All of the La Brea fossils show the distinctive chocolate patina of their time in the tar. There are sloths, mastodons, condors, ancient buffalo, horses, sabre-toothed cats and dire wolves. Lots and lots of dire wolves.
Did I mention there are lots of dire wolves? One of the more stunning displays is a lighted wall made up of row after row of dire wolf skulls. There could easily be a hundred of them, filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling. (Watch the informational videos in the two museum theaters, and you’ll learn that these skulls are only a hint of the bounty of fossils that continue to come from ongoing excavations on the site).
There are not dinosaurs, of course. The tar pits began their life-capturing career only forty-thousand years ago (which turns out to be an important time-span in the story of the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna). And though there is likely a connection between the arrival of humans on the continent and the subsequent extinction of these large animals, there has only been one human fossil recovered from the pits: a woman from about ten thousand years ago.
I can’t say enough nice things about this museum. It is a fine blend of location, collection and architecture. Everything one could want in a museum experience.
The Page Museum is located in central Los Angeles, right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (hint: if you’re planning to visit both, do The Page Museum first — LACMA is a vast and overwhelming campus of buildings and collections).