To the casual visitor, it looks like business as usual at the La Brea Tar Pits.
Since the Fourth of July, volunteers have been sweating 14 feet down in Pit 91, the only public excavation of its kind in the United States. Every summer, as visitors peer down from an observation shed at ground level in Hancock Park, volunteers carefully extricate the bones of saber-toothed cats and other extinct creatures from the asphalt that trapped them beginning 40,000 years ago and that has preserved them ever since.
It’s been a banner year for Pit 91, with a record number of fossils--more than 1,100 have been unearthed. But it’s been anything but a good year for the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries. A satellite of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and the home of many of the Ice Age fossils that are one of the city’s genuine treasures, the Page attracts 500,000 visitors a year. Behind the scenes, though, the Page has been struggling with problems every bit as sticky as those that faced the hapless sabertooth or mastodon mired in the asphalt.
“They don’t pay anybody enough to go through what we’ve gone through for the last seven months,” said Christopher A. Shaw, the collections manager at the museum.
The Page’s troubles began in January, when county-mandated budget cuts gutted the museum’s professional staff.
Until January, the museum had four county employees who worked with its core paleontology collection. When three of the four were notified they would be laid off--after months of rumors but just 24 hours before the layoffs were to take place--they scrambled to make other arrangements. George T. Jefferson, the chief administrator of the department and an expert on large Ice Age mammals, took the county’s early-retirement option. He subsequently found a position at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, reluctantly leaving the museum where he had spent his entire professional career.
Cathy McNassor, whose duties included acting as archivist of the Page, got her layoff notice while participating in a prestigious workshop at the J. Paul Getty Museum on the preservation of historic photographs. McNassor took the Getty program to help her take better care of the Page’s rich but largely unorganized collection of visual materials, including hundreds of pictures of pioneering bone prospectors.
In lieu of a layoff, McNassor opted for a reduction in civil service rank and took what she describes as a less satisfying job as a senior technician at a museum warehouse downtown. (She has since been laid off again, in what she claims is a violation of the Civil Service Code.)
Shelley Cox, supervisor of the Page’s unusual “fishbowl” lab, where visitors can see volunteers cleaning and repairing ancient bones, was briefly laid off in January, only to be hired back almost immediately on the payroll of the Natural History Museum Foundation, a private fund-raising organization that pays more and more museum salaries as county funds dwindle.
These days, Cox is more than busy running the lab and supervising the museum’s 50-odd volunteers. And Shaw, whose primary responsibility is caring for the museum’s collections, is doing the work of three staffers.
A biologist by training, Shaw, 41, is politically discreet when asked about the atmosphere in which the cutbacks have taken place. But he said the Page staff is now cut so close to the bone that the remaining staffers are seriously overworked and so mired in the mundane that only essential museum tasks are being done. What was once both a tourist attraction and a notable research institution is now, by and large, just a tourist attraction.
As Shaw explained, there are just too few resources and too few hours in the day to do all that the Page once did. The increased workload has also virtually eliminated his after-hours research into the diseases and injuries that sabertooths were heir to. He has also been unable to do further work on his hypothesis that the sabertooth was a social animal, as evidenced by the fact that some horribly crippled animals lived for years--apparently because other sabertooths allowed them to share their kills.
Shaw now writes many of the reports that Jefferson used to produce, and he handles most museum correspondence as well, including some “15 or 20 letters a month from kids, or people, who have found a bone or want information on dinosaurs (none have ever been found at the tar pits) or on Rancho La Brea.” And then there are the phones. Shaw spends more than twice as much time on the telephone as he used to--dealing with an average of 100 calls a month, instead of 40.
Shaw also meets and greets the 60 to 80 professionals who use the collections each year. He has also had a crash course in paper-pushing. “I have, for the first time in my career, learned to fill out a purchase order,” he said. “I hate it.”
In addition to assuming some of his former boss’s duties, he has taken over a number of McNassor’s functions. McNassor had a gift for getting people who had borrowed fossils and other materials from the museum years ago to return them, he said. He has virtually no time to give to getting overdue loans back. And McNassor also dealt with institutions or individuals who wanted to buy casts of a sabertooth skull or some other choice specimen in the museum’s collection.
The museum’s cast business has been experiencing a boomlet, Shaw said, noting that the Page recently sold two casts of giant ground sloth skeletons for $10,000 each. The surge in the cast business is welcome as a source of income but couldn’t come at a worse time from a staffing point of view, he said.
Shaw said he has been in Pit 91 only three or four times during this summer’s excavation season, in contrast to his weekly visits in the past. Since the January layoffs, he has had no time to write grant proposals to bid for outside funding the museum needs. One major project that has been put on hold because of the crunch has been the museum’s effort to computerize uniform information on all the specimens the museum holds, including who dug them up, their orientation when discovered and what scientific publications they have been featured in.
Natural History Museum officials have said it may not be possible in these tough economic times for publicly supported museums to undertake research. They may have to be content with maintaining their collections until the economy improves. That could be--but it’s hard on people like Shaw to be answering the phones when the tar pits continue to present new puzzles that pique the trained imagination.
During this summer’s dig, for instance, it became clear that a stream ran through the site of Pit 91 some 33,000 years ago. If you study and make ready, you can almost see the gigantic vulture, extinct for eons, as it settles by the stream, perhaps to drink. You can almost hear its screams as it finds it cannot escape the asphalt. What does the stream say about the climate? The site is full of leaves, from what kind of tree that sheltered what kind of creatures above the blackly gleaming tar?