By: Simone Graham – Editor HDG: I had the opportunity to have a personal tour of the back-office section of the La Brea Tarpits a few days ago. My niece, Noel Graham, a graduate of Apple Valley High, is currently working on a grant at the La Brea Tarpits with a team to develop materials from Project 23 into teaching materials available to schools. Project 23 is named for the twenty-three giant boxes of bones and tar discovered during the underground parking structure excavation across the street at LACMA in 2006. Since that discovery, less than seven boxes of the twenty-three are completely cleaned and cataloged in the museum’s storage area.


After seeing the main floor exhibits, Noel arranged to have one of her colleagues show me how bone fragments are separated from sand and dirt samples and from tar deposits. Beau’s title is ‘preparator’. His brother, Sean, who gave me an outside tour inside the fenced area containing the Project 23 boxes, has the same title at the museum. They have the painstaking job of drilling tar away from chunks with bones and other fragments and using solvent to when needed to clean them. Beau uses a 55-gallon drum of solvent every three months to do the job and that is with filtering the solvent and reusing it.


I was surprised to learn from Noel that the museum building is sinking. The decision now is between figuring out how to stop it from sinking or build a new structure. Then there is the question of funding and where the money will come from to design and build a new facility. I learned from Beau, my personal guide, there is also a problem of storage. They need more cataloging space as the museum is quickly reaching capacity to house all the bones and fossils processed by employees and volunteers. The delay in making the decision and green lighting a new building project is because the tarpits is part of the Museum of Natural History and not its own boss. The Natural History Museum, at Exposition Park next to the Science Museum and UCLA, has its own funding interests and, so far, is not fundraising to specifically address the rebuild issue.

The team is preparing to test the system they have developed to package, send, track, and later evaluate the kits sent out to the teachers that responded to the museums first meeting held to explain its public education project. Noel thinks it should work as it is set up now but knows that it may need planning and operation tweaks along the way. Elementary, middle school, and high school teachers from public and private schools already have requested kits.

As students open their packet of Project 23 dig materials, they become museum volunteers doing necessary and valuable work that will add to the museum collection. The teachers receive a box with enough packets for teams of two, a tray, and a large card placed in the tray with a diagram showing which materials to look for, separate, and place in smaller packets. The kit includes booklets for the students to explain the project that they keep once the class activity is finished. It explains how to separate specimens from the matrix using the paintbrush included with student supplies. Students can examine microfossils with the magnifier lens that is also part of the student kit.

The museum is concentrating on working with Los Angeles schools, but is open to expanding its outreach to all school districts as the education project is up and running. The team does have to prepare and package all the kits themselves right there at the museum, so you may be on a waiting list if the project experiences numerous requests. Teachers, it is well worth the wait if that happens.

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