Death awaits in the La Brea Tar Pits; a slow, agonizing death by starvation and asphyxiation. Whether modeled as the silent scream of a mammoth in the artificial lake outside or arranged in the amber-lit collection of dire wolf skulls in the museum’s artificial “pit,” the graphic reenactment of dying and a meticulous record keeping of death are what makes this place one of the most bizarrely beautiful museums I know.
For millennia, the tar pits gobbled up any and every creature, which had the fateful intuition to quench its thirst in the oily swamps that are now located in the middle of Los Angeles, or who tried to feast on the poor souls already half submerged. Their perfectly preserved skeletons were dug up, catalogued and eventually exhibited over the span of the last one hundred years. Even a human skeleton was found.
In its current form the permanent exhibition in the small museum under the artificial earthen mount revolves around the process of the continued excavation of the pits and their most spectacular victims, either in their stunning singularity of misfortune or in a telling repetition of predictable behaviors. Under the open canopy, in the center a planted oasis of ferns and palm trees evokes a Paleolithic age that sends visitors to a bucolic past. But the real drama happens behind the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the garden: a tar-filled display case lets everyone experience how well they would fare if caught in the oily sludge.
The excavation site outside lets visitors watch as workers dredge up new specimen, and smell the rank odor emanating through bubbles rising from the stale ponds. And, somehow, watching these humans seems to be what it’s all about. The pits are a testament to our obsession with unearthing and preserving a past we cannot fully visualize other than through the process of discovery itself.
Incidentally, the museum and park are currently experiencing their very own threat of extinction: in 2019 a competition proposed a remodel and it will only be a matter of years until this 1970s beauty will itself be gobbled up by a larger structure that beckons with alluring promises.
The La Brea Tarpits, Los Angeles, California