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April 1977 - George C. Page Museum Opens at La Brea Tar Pits

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Bubbling Tar
Bubbling tar outside the Page Museum in the La Brea Tar Pits. | Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia/Creative Commons License

In April 1977, the George C. Page Museum opened in Hancock Park, giving the public an up-close opportunity to see the area's Ice Age fossils excavated from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits.

The naturally occurring asphalt deposits have been in existence for tens of thousands of years, trapping animals such as mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves, and sloths, and preserving their skeletal remains.

The indigenous Tongva people who lived in what is now the Los Angeles area used the asphalt and tar deposits for waterproofing material in structures and boats, which allowed them to navigate the Pacific Ocean to villages in what is now the Channel Islands.

In 1828, the Mexican government designated over 4,400 acres of the area as Rancho La Brea to Antonio Jose Rocha, under the condition that the asphalt can be freely mined for public use.

As early as 1875, fossilized bones of animals were discovered in the area, subsequent discoveries in the early 1900s confirmed this claim, and the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) began archaeological digs in 1913, yielding 95 sites and 750,000 fossil specimens until 1915. The last private owner of the land, petroleum magnate George Allan Hancock, aware of the archeological value of his property, donated 23 acres of his land to the County of Los Angeles in 1924.

Although excavations activity was limited in the years following, towards the late 20th century, the Natural History Museum, which previously exhibited the La Brea fossils seven miles away, began building a dedicated museum at the county-owned Rancho La Brea site next to the L.A. County Museum of Art. The building was named after local developer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist George C. Page, who developed an interest in the La Brea fossils since his youth, and donated much of the funding to build the new museum.

Appropriately enough, even the museum's construction in 1975 yielded the largest collection of articulated fossil specimen on the property. The museum featured life-sized display of the Ice Age mammals, and pavilions were built around a number of the dig sites. The iconic mammoth family statues were installed in the large tar lake facing Wilshire Boulevard, creating one of the region's most popular attractions.

In 2006, the construction of LACMA's parking garage yielded another major fossil specimen discovery, as well as another excavation project in 2008.

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