Discovering Wonders Along Museum Row

Valerie J. Nelson is a Los Angeles-area freelance writer

Smelly ponds of black goo. Paleontologists at work with tiny tools. And the chance to witness bones being uncovered that haven't seen the light of day for up to 40,000 years.

Neither Jurassic nor Triassic, it's strictly Ice Age, but close enough to entrance today's dinosaur-obsessed kids.

The annual excavation of the La Brea tar pits, which began this month, has become a summer tradition for the George C. Page Museum, keeper of the tar pits and all that is found within them. Each summer for the last 12 years, between 800 and 1,400 specimens have been found, said Christopher Shaw, the museum's collection manager, who has helped extract the Ice Age fossils since 1969.

It's just one of several summer programs for children and their parents on the stretch of Miracle Mile in Los Angeles known as Museum Row.

Hundreds are expected to climb onto the observation deck above Pit 91 and observe scientists and volunteers combing the tar pit--actually filled with sticky asphalt--for the remains of such creatures as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, American lions, bison and horses, to name some of the animals uncovered in last year's two-month excavation.

Last year's most thrilling discovery was the pelvis of a giant ground sloth, complete with remains of the animal's last meal.

"It was the first direct evidence of what these guys were eating. That's pretty significant and exciting to me," Shaw said.

After peering into the pit, you can venture into the museum to gaze at scientists engaged in the exacting work of cleaning the fossils, then take in samples of their finished work, such as the wall-size display case of dire wolf skulls.

* George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, 5801 Wilshire Blvd. Excavation is Wednesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; also open Mondays through Aug. 26. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students, $3.50; children 5-10, $2; under age 5, free. All admissions are free on the first Tuesday of the month. Tar pit observation is free. (213) 936-2230.

After witnessing the unearthing of artifacts, consider walking to one of the other museums in the area. Two of the museums--the Page and the Petersen--honor the Cee-L.A. discount card, available for $40, which buys unlimited admission for a family of four to 16 local museums; call (818) 957-9400.

Petersen Automotive Museum

"Oh, so that's what an accident looks like," says a 5-year-old who's heard one too many radio traffic reports. He's pointing to the wreckage of a 1993 Toyota Supra framed by scary statistics showing how unsafe the roads can be. It's one more large-as-life exhibit in the Petersen Automotive Museum, dedicated as much to car culture as to the car itself.

In February 1896, Charles Duryea sold the first gasoline-powered car in the United States. To mark that milestone, the museum will stage a "Kid's Car Centennial Celebration" on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Four donated automobiles will be available for personal customizing, and children are invited to bring personal objects to glue to the cars (and perhaps get the idea out of their systems). Thomas Bros. Maps will give geography workshops, kids will make "auto" -mobiles and work on a futuristic mural of what Los Angeles might be like in the next 100 years. Much of the artwork generated that day will be on display at the museum from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15.

Within the museum itself, children can clamber into a trolley, sit in an Indy 500 car or even marvel at a grand 1905 Columbia buggy. Said an 8-year-old girl: "Cinderella probably rode in that."

* Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. "Kid's Car Centennial" activities are free. Adults, $7; senior citizens and students, $5; children 5-12, $3; under age 5, free. (213) 930-2277.

Museum of Miniatures

Before the annual trip to Disneyland, consider stopping in at the Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, where miniatures made and collected by Walt Disney are being exhibited for the first time since his death in 1966. The 2,000 objects, including a miniature train and a pioneer house he built, make you feel as if you are witnessing the genesis of what came to be Disneyland.

A "Museum Mania Treasure Hunt" turns young museum-goers into detectives, pulling them into the wonder world of ornate, historically accurate rooms, each barely larger than a shoe box. The junior detective's journey begins with Fontainebleau, the French home to monarchs; winds through the time of Dickens and the Wild West; then ends near a tiny model of Judge Lance Ito's courtroom, wryly titled "Who Says It's a Big Trial?"

* Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, 5900 Wilshire Blvd. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Disney collection through Sept. 30. Adults, $7.50; senior citizens, $6.50; students 13-21, $5; children 3-12, $3. "Museum Mania Treasure Hunt" costs $8.95; trivia work sheets are free. (213) 937-6464.

L.A. County Museum of Art

LACMA history is being made in a small way with the installation of "Hearts and Gizzards: A Child's Gallery of Quilts," which opens Thursday. It's the first time the museum has thought specifically about kids in installing and planning an exhibition, said Jenny Siegenthaler, assistant museum curator. The children's quilts, made between 1840 and 1940, will be hung lower than normal, and the written information will be aimed at children in the upper elementary grades.

The exhibition's activity area will feature a magnetic table with geometric pieces to construct instant quilts and children's costumes from the same era as the quilts. Beginning Aug. 3, docents will lead sessions that examine how quilts are made and tours that will relate quilt design concepts to other pieces in the museum's collection. The sessions will begin at 1 p.m. every Saturday and on the second Wednesday of each month; the tours will start at 1:30 p.m.

On museum family days, children 5 to 12 can explore a Chinese garden, as they did in June. In "Sights and Sounds of the Ancient Americas," one of the two remaining family days this summer, the Eagle Spirit Dancers will perform next Sunday at 12:30 p.m. From 1:30 to 4:15 p.m., children can decorate a gourd rattle, create an urban dreamscape or make an ancient ball game out of clay.

In "Lions and Tigers and Bears!" the Flights of Fantasy Theater will present "Story Circus," a three-ring program of folk tales, fables and poetry from around the world, beginning Aug. 12 at 12:30 p.m. Wildlife on Wheels will incorporate real animals into the storytelling, and crafts will include making a birdcall whistle and a family totem shield.

Last fall, the museum introduced Sunday family gallery tours, meant to cover "subject matter that's more engaging and topics that appeal to children," said Jane Burrell, chief of art museum education. Today's tour is "Twentieth Century Art." "Heroes, Gods, Myths and Legends" is Aug. 4 and "Discover the World in Art" is Aug. 11. All tours begin at 12:30 p.m. and are free with museum admission.

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adults, $6; senior citizens 62 and older and students with ID, $4; ages 6-17, $1; ages 5 and under, free. All admissions are free on the second Wednesday of the month. (213) 857-6000.

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