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Scientific VIEW

Tar Pits Museum Is a Time Machine

December 18, 1986|BETTY ANN KEVLES

The Greek Muses (with the exception of Urania, who presided over astronomy) oversaw arts and letters. Some thousand years after their appearance, museums--halls of the Muses--were erected as modern sanctuaries for Muse-inspired works. (With the continued exception of Urania, whose followers instead built planetariums to delight the public by turning day into night.)

Our great museums garnered fame for their collections. Whether housing paintings by Rembrandt or dinosaur fossils, museums first attracted visitors to admire objects that are inherently valuable. Visitors still flock to these exhibits.

But museums without Muses--science museums--are growing faster than any other part of the museum world. Overall, science museums now attract more than 50 million visitors a year who come not to see unique objects, but to be awed, and to learn from the ingenuity of wizards free to use the technology of holograms, infra-red lighting and computer technology to display the intricacies of nature.

These museums are frankly educational. They invite visitors to get a feel for the way scientists work and, if they have time, to join in the process.

According to a recent study for the Assn. of Science and Technology Centers in Washington, fewer than half of the visitors to these new museums are children. Adults visit them for fun, and as away of continuing to learn after their formal education has ended.

More like a public library than an art gallery, science museums are a resource that complement school curricula and help keep everyone abreast of high technology. Communities in New Jersey, Georgia and California are planning to erect hands-on, interactive science museums.

The movement is worldwide. The staid Museum of Natural History in London has introduced hands-on displays. In France, the new science museum in Paris has already cost $600 million and is attracting people from all over Europe to explore its grandiose exhibitions. Plans for more halls of science are under way in South America and India.

There are two kinds of science museums. Some, like the one in London, the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles and the Exploratorium in San Francisco include a vast buffet of different exhibits. Others are single-issue museums that explore a small subject in great depth.

In Los Angeles there is nothing quite like the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. A remote branch of the Natural History Museum, it is an independent institution nestled inconspicuously into Hancock Park. The Page Museum has only one string on its guitar: the ancient history of this special piece of real estate. With tar still bubbling--and a clever exhibition that lets the visitor manipulate a device within the tar pool to feel its consistency--the visitor rides a time machine back 40,000 years to the era of saber-tooth tigers and giant mammoths. We also see the fossil of a young woman that, in the wink of an eye becomes a fully fleshed hunter, and know that this alien landscape was not so distinct from Hancock Park today as to be uninhabitable by human beings. A special corner of the museum displays the laboratory where paleontologists chip away at the still unchartered treasure in the pits.

In the Bay Area, the Coyote Point Museum on a spit of woodland just south of San Francisco Airport provides a different way of learning about science. Like the Tar Pits, the Coyote Point Museum focuses on the Bay Area, especially the San Francisco Peninsula, which happens to contain six of California's eight biotic communities. Only the desert and Sierra are missing.

Environmental history, not ancient history, is what this museum is about. Combining botany, zoology, geology, ecology and human demography, the museum depicts the effects of the human settlement of the past two centuries.

When Coyote Point was home to more wildlife than people, forests covered the land. Logging began in San Mateo around 1830. By 1900 most of the virgin timber had been logged. What little logging remains is managed carefully, but on the whole urban sprawl has left only a hint of the ancient forest.

The current exhibition (until Jan. 17) is about forests as communities of trees, and about a single tree as a community in itself. You can walk inside a manmade tree and count the rings. Outside you can see the beetles, bees and birds that make that tree their home. A xylophone built with different kinds of wood demonstrates differences in elasticity and density, and thus the differences in pitch. The life cycle of a tree, the tree's role in civilization, and by extension the threat to the tropical forests today, is typical of the message this science museum is spreading.

Never overwhelming, a visit to a small museum can be a satisfying respite during this frenetic season.

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