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Bones of Contention : Science: A county supervisor has suggested possibly selling some of the Natural History Museum’s warehouses of specimens to save money. But staffers say the collections are valuable for research and use in future exhibits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Its name is Purussaurus and it is the largest species of crocodile that ever lived, a massive-jawed creature that thundered through South America’s Amazon Basin 6 to 8 million years ago before its kind perished.

But at least one of the Purussaurus left a legacy, a grinning 62-inch, half-ton fossilized skull, a cast of which occupies a large space in a storage area of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

The Purussaurus skull has been on display only once since the cast was completed in 1991, having then been rotated back to the relative anonymity of the museum’s collections. It nevertheless forms an important part of the museum’s work of research, preservation and exhibition.

Indeed, a recent suggestion by a Los Angeles County supervisor that the museum could sell some of its collections and save warehousing costs sent the sober-minded scientists who work there reeling. It would be like trying to sell off the underwater formation that supports the tip of a spectacular iceberg, they say.

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To them, the museum functions almost like a huge theatrical production, with a cast of thousands in front of and behind the curtains who are equally important in putting on a good show.

“There are lessons to be learned by identifying and studying collections,” said Daniel M. Cohen, the museum’s deputy director of research and collections, sitting in his comfortably lived-in third floor office. “Our exhibits are based on collections, our educational programs are based on collections. What we try to do is be a window on the world. We’re a way that people can come into this building and experience something different.”

At the museum’s five-story Exposition Park home, only about a quarter of the building is used for exhibits, with another quarter housing offices and the rest reserved for its vast collections of specimens. More than 45 staffers are involved in studying and caring for the collections, with another 20 to 30 working on specific projects funded by grants or contracts.

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Grants from scientific and private foundations allow the museum to acquire some specimens; others are gathered by scientists in their research while some large collections are donated. One donated insect collection numbered about 16,000 specimens.

The museum maintains four off-site facilities that house millions of specimens: hundreds of toe bones of a horse that lived 100,000 years ago and whose fossils were found in a cave deposit in northern Mexico; collections of seashells and plankton from Southern California shores; shelves of whale, porpoise and seal skeletons, and buckets of unsorted sediments from the famed Rancho La Brea area bearing who knows what fossil gems.

A walk through the storage collections and research laboratories of the museum offers a glimpse of scientific artistry that the public rarely sees. Although few specimens will make it to the big time, like eager understudies waiting for their break, they all have a story to tell.

“This is one reason to have an off-site facility, we bring in specimens that do smell a bit,” said John Heyning, leading a visitor into a spacious Vernon warehouse, pungent with the smell of decay.

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The odoriferous building is where the museum houses its main collection of marine mammals and bones of larger terrestrial mammals such as the hippopotamus. One area is used for dissections and necropsies.

Prominent among the rows of shelves is the largest specimen in the entire museum, the one-ton skull of an adult female blue whale that was struck and killed by a container ship in Los Angeles Harbor in 1986. The weeklong recovery of the whale’s body and acquisition of the skull proved quite a media event, generating worldwide coverage. Of less interest to the media hordes has been the scientific data collected from the cetacean.

Study of the shape of the skull helps to discover how the animal produces sounds and can help determine its relationship to other types of whales. Scientists might also be able to glean insight into the impact of shipping on large whales, said Heyning, associate curator of mammals.

“One big misconception of the off-site facilities is that it is just dead storage, but many of the specimens are used in active research,” he said, noting that a delegation from the National Marine Fisheries Service had recently used the facility for training.

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Heyning offers his statement in rebuttal to suggestions that some collections simply gather dust. Supervisor Gloria Molina requested that the county’s Citizens Economy and Efficiency Commission study whether it is feasible to donate some of the collections to universities and contract out collection management services. Budget cutbacks have jeopardized staffing and services at the museum, and officials say it is wise to try to trim costs wherever possible in the museum’s $7-million budget.

“It costs about $1.2 million a year in warehousing costs and our concern is how to keep (the museums) open seven days a week,” said Molina spokesman Robert Alaniz. “We are certainly not suggesting that the museum get rid of all its collections . . . but there can be a look at what the priorities should be, whether research, education, exhibitions.”

But museum officials argue that a top-flight facility--Los Angeles’ museum is considered one of the best in the country--must strive to provide all those functions if it aspires to be anything more than a gallery. They note that items in storage today may be in exhibits tomorrow.

For example, many of the Vernon facility’s specimens--porpoise, seal and sea lion skeletons and the like--will be used to create a major exhibit that is scheduled to open in October and then tour for five years.

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“When people see the whole exhibit, it will be very hard to visualize how it got there and what the basis of it is, but it wouldn’t be possible without the collections to draw on,” Cohen said.

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Museum curators say there are a number of reasons why some items end up on display and others do not, including the rarity of a specimen, its quality and value to society and who does the choosing.

“If a curator specializes in deep sea crustaceans, like myself, then that is what I’ll want to put on exhibit,” said curator of marine invertebrates Joel W. (Jody) Martin, who is planning an exhibit of rare crabs and shrimps that thrive in hot water vents located deep under ocean surfaces.

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His collections in the Exposition Park facility number nearly 3 million crustaceans, housed in more than 120,000 jars.

The museum’s vast collections offer an eclectic mix of the old and historical. A second Vernon warehouse is home to a huge selection of historical objects that offer a record of how Southern Californians from eras past went about their daily lives. There are re-creations of old stores and drive-ins; pickle barrels, tables, chairs and old pictures that are preserved.

Another Los Angeles warehouse contains fossils of mollusks, clams, snails and corals, the remains of small plankton and other micro-fossils from Southern California and Mexico.

The fourth off-site facility includes archeological materials from the Channel Islands, Native American artifacts such as stone tools, utensils, arrowheads and bead and shell jewelry. There are military items of historical significance and agricultural implements that helped establish California as the fruit and vegetable basket of the nation.

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