La Brea Tar Pits begins an unusual rebrand

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La Brea Tar Pits begins an unusual rebrand
The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, Sept. 1, 2022. The sprawling, grassy grounds on the Miracle Mile are probably better known for the fake mammoth family than for the institution’s scientific contributions, which is why the museum’s curators are hoping a long-awaited revamp could breathe life into the landmark. (Tanveer Badal/The New York Times)

by Soumya Karlamangla

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The La Brea Tar Pits are among Los Angeles’ best-known attractions — and among the least understood. The sprawling, grassy grounds on the Miracle Mile are probably better known for the fake mammoth family than for the institution’s scientific contributions. That’s why the museum’s curators are hoping a long-awaited revamp could breathe life into the landmark.

“I live in the area, and I run through the grounds in the morning, and pass by patches of tar bubbling up,” said Adam Popescu, a reporter based in LA. “There are kids playing soccer, some homeless people in tents, a boot-camp exercise class. They have visitors, but it’s a space that people come to and they’re not really sure what they’re seeing. Most people think it’s dinosaurs. Or people think it’s fake.”

There are no T. rex bones there, but the museum has more ice age fossils than any other institution in the world. The ancient asphalt lakes trapped and preserved more than 600 plant and animal species. (And if you’re wondering, LA was entirely underwater when dinosaurs walked the Earth, more than 66 million years before any creatures were caught in the tar.)

Popescu recently wrote an article for The New York Times about the La Brea Tar Pits’ unusual rebranding efforts, a strategy to draw more visitors after a year of pandemic closures. The museum curators are trying to connect the conditions that killed off large animals at the end of the ice age, about 13,000 years ago, with the fires, drought and extreme heat in California today.

“That’s the new story the museum is trying to tell,” Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, which oversees the tar pits, told Popescu.

I spoke to Popescu about his article and the museum’s future. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Q: Tell me more about the tar pits rebranding effort.

A: The climate scientists and paleoecologists at the La Brea Tar Pits told me that what we’re experiencing right now is part of a long-term trend. The issue of drought, rising temperatures and fire — it’s not the first time that Southern California has experienced this. In fact, about 13,000 years ago, this landscape also experienced those three elements together. And that may have been the cause for the great extinction of the ice age mammals: mastodons, mammoths, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats. They all died in that period, and scientists for decades have been trying to figure out why.

Q: It seems like connecting previous calamities to today’s climate is a pretty bleak way to try to get people to come to a museum on their day off.

A: The hope is that it can still be a place where the community gathers. But it can also be a more robust institution: It can show you the science. There’s talk of making it more interactive, making it come more alive.

The hope is that this new narrative can show you the excavation process and reframe the way we look at climate so we see that these changes aren’t just trapped in time. They’re happening now. And, hopefully, this can influence the next generation of young scientists to take an interest in climate. It’s not just something happening on a mountaintop in the Himalayas with glaciers receding. This is happening all around us.

Q: The tar pits are an actual scientific laboratory. What are some of the things we still have to learn about this time period? And what was Los Angeles like at the time?

A: They’ve found millions of fossils in the tar pits but the remains of only one human. Yet we know that people were living here at the time. Why is it that there were no people found here but all of this evidence of animal life?

At that time, a lot of the early California people were coastal. They lived in the Channel Islands. So there are all of these competing theories: Were people avoiding the megafauna? Were they creating fires as a way to hunt them? Or was this just too far inland?

There are so many questions, and the fact that there’s only one human remain, this so-called La Brea Woman, it’s like a door we can’t open yet. As a researcher, as a reporter, as an Angeleno, it’s utterly fascinating, and it shows that in our lifetimes we’re probably going to learn so much more about this area, this region, the culture, the climate — that really speaks to who we are as people living here. It’s just ultimately so fascinating and exciting.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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