The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is over a century old, and has been one of LA's principle centers of public science and learning. It originally housed art collections as well, which were eventually moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA.) The museum has a number of permanent exhibits, including the Birds, Gems and Minerals, and Becoming L.A. exhibits, but the centerpiece of any visit has to be the Dinosaur Hall.
An expanded and updated version of the museum's original dinosaur offerings debuted in July 2011; it now features a 14,000 square-foot multi-level experience with thousands of fossils and casts on display.
There are a variety of skeleton reproductions–some of them posed in groups to demonstrate behavior–and many more mounted as a part of themed displays. A few of the specimens have even been made available to for visitors to actually touch, including a pair of herbivores' defensive weapons, a Triceratops horn and a Stegosaurus spike.
Like most top-shelf museum exhibits in the twenty-first century, the Dinosaur Hall is about as interactive and multi-media as possible, with detailed maps and graphics, videos and interactive displays.
To the right is a little sizzle-reel from the museum's YouTube channel, narrated by the - Jonathan Pryce. It prominently singles out the "Thomas" T. rex, which was named by the man who discovered it after his brother–however, scientists have yet to confirm whether the animal was actually male.
As visitors enter the Dinosaur Hall, they are confronted with the Triceratops skeleton. The Triceratops is of course notable for its three horns, but something rarely revealed in textbooks is how narrow its skull is. Below is the more familiar profile, showing the horns, jawline, and various skull cavities. On the right, the familiar almost completely disappears; the points of the horn and the tip of the "beak" can be seen, but trying to identify the Triceratops from this angle is quite a challenge.
One of the most engaging scenes created in the Dinosaur Hall is the T. rex Growth Series, wherein three Tyrannosaurs are posed in proximity: they are estimated to have been aged 2, 13 and 17 years at the times of their deaths–smaller than full-grown adults, but still formidable.
A few other notable dinos include an Allosaurus and Stegosaurus locked in combat, and a Velociraptor–not the Jurassic Park variety, but the actual dog-sized avian kind. According to the exhibit commentary, the larger animals were set up in a combative posture because pieces of each had been found embedded in the skeleton of the other–an Allosaur tooth fragment in the side of the herbivore, and a piece of one the Steg's tail spikes stuck in its attacker.
Actual Raptors would've been covered with fluffy proto-feathers, and stood about the size of a swan or a turkey–but probably still a good deal more dangerous than modern game fowl.
In addition to the completed skeletons, the museum has a variety of individual specimens available for viewing.
One display was of a mold made from the brain cavity of an adult T. rex, located in a section about how dinosaurs sensed the world around them. This particular part of the exhibit talked about smell, thus the blue highlighting on the model.
The model is about 10 inches / 25 cm long. Not much grey matter to drive a beast so big.
At another display, there is a magnified section of a piece of rock, where tiny indentations were created by the scaly skin of a dinosaur as it fossilized.
The Natural History Museum has many other displays devoted to contextualizing the more engaging fossil/model reproductions in the hall. One particular display distilled a wealth of taxonomical information into a handful of simple data points. The chart, below, shows how different branches of dinosaur lineage are defined and distinguished from each other. A dozen types of animals, spanning a few hundred million years of evolution, are arranged so as to clearly indicate how they are related to each other; which types have common ancestors, and which features make them anatomically distinctive. Note the line for birds branches off between the Raptor and the T. rex.
One final item of note in the Dinosaur Hall before we more on to the museum's other landmark permanent exhibition, is this awesome map, showing the inland sea that existed in North America a few hundred million years ago. In the west, the landmass follows the line of the Rocky Mountains. In the east, the Appalachians mark the boundary of the continent. In between these two regions is the Western Interior Seaway, covering the Great Plains and most of the area that is now bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The exhibit makes special note of all of the marine life fossils that have been found in (among other places) Kansas, far from modern coastlines where common sense would suggest such things would be found.
The modern political borders are drawn (in white) on the map, with green of course indicating the land areas at the time, and the light blue areas are the shallow waters on the continental shelf. The dark blue backdrop represents the deeper oceans–and the dark red rectangle at the bottom is an electrical outlet, not associated with the exhibit materials.
Across from the Dinosaur Hall are the halls of North American Mammals. The museum has both skeletal models and an entire hall of diorama, showing these animals in their elements. The mammals featured include both extinct and extant species, and as the name of the exhibit suggests, all originated in North America.
The Mammals hall has more than its fair share of charismatic super predators, such as the Smilodon and the Dire Wolf. Both of these creatures died approximately 10,000 years ago out in the Quaternary extinction event that marks the end of the Pleistocene era–a period of time that, in North America, saw rapid climate shifts & the arrival of humans.
For even more information about Dire Wolves, please check out this recent post on io9 by Esther Inglis-Arkell, which chronicles the development, capabilities, and discovery of Dire Wolves, separating fact from fiction.
Similar to the Dinosaur Hall, the Mammal exhibits are filled with additional learning opportunities that line the walls around the models. One of the most important is this representation, below, that shows the similarity of the hands or fore-limbs of a variety of different species. These structures–be they hand, paw, hoof, wing, or fin–developed from simpler versions in a common ancestor tens of millions of years ago, and are one of the foundational elements of the argument in favor of divergent evolution.
The standout piece of the extinct animals collection has got to be the Mastodon skeleton. It dominates the room, towering over the sloths and horses and camels and deer around it.
Top Row: Elk, White-tailed Deer, Black Bear
Bottom Row: Wolverine, Bighorn Sheep
The La Brea Tar Pits are a group of several naturally occurring upwellings of asphalt, methane and other noxious chemicals. The constant rise of these chemicals through the bedrock has become an invaluable paleontological tool, causing thousands of fossils to be brought to the surface that would otherwise have to be painstakingly excavated. Hundreds of species that once inhabited the La Brea area of the Los Angeles Basin have been identified and categorized. a selection of them are available for examination in the Page museum. Operations are ongoing, with scientists currently investigating multiple sites.
Out front is the fairly horrible, family-in-crisis scene of a mother Columbia Mammoth trapped in tar while her mate and their child look on helplessly.
Especially upsetting is the look of abject terror on the face of the baby mammoth, who clearly has no idea what is happening other than ITS MOTHER GETTING SUCKED INTO THE PIT OF DESPAIR.
Why anyone would want an existential crisis out in front of a center of learning boggles the mind.
The installation was the brainchild of sculptor Howard Ball; it was set up in 1968.
Inside the museum is a bit cheerier, although its much more a spectre of death given the tragedy outside. There are reproductions of all the Pleistocene megafauna, including giant sloths, short faced bears, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves. The most impressive specimen in the Page museum is–similar to the Natural History Museum–a giant pachyderm. The Mammoth here is taller than the Mastodon at NHM; it stands over twelve feet (4 meters) tall.
Additionally there is an unprecedented and unrivaled collection of dire wolf skulls on display. A sign next to the Wall of Skulls (not its really name) reads that there are 404 of them, "which represent only a portion of the more than 1600 wolves whose remains have been found here. It is thought that the packs of Dire Wolves attempted to feed on animals trapped in the asphalt and became mired themselves.
Finally, is a really amazing landscape painted on the wall behind a reproduction of a big cat attacking a giant sloth. In the environment behind the battle scene is another Smilodon, bears, horses, deer, birds and mammoths: a portrait of the Los Angeles Basin from some tens of thousands of years ago.
Both of these institutions are well worth visiting. They have special discount rates, tours, and other amenities available through their respective websites. Aside from some of the permanent exhibitions mentioned here, there are new ones forthcoming. In October, the NHM is premiering Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs, featuring artifacts from both Egypt and Peru. Additionally, there are new discoveries being made every day at the Tar Pits, and any lay person or tourist who happens to be on site could witness history uncovered.
Hit the links on the right for all this and more.