2014 Grants Challenge

Check out our New Digs: The La Brea Tar Pits Improvement Project

Like a few other people who live off Wilshire, the @LaBreaTarPits are getting some work done.


Please describe yourself.

Solo actor (just us on this project!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Our improvement project will reinvigorate the La Brea Tar Pits and provide a prehistoric playground where Angelenos can play and learn.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

Central LA

East LA

South LA

San Gabriel Valley

San Fernando Valley

South Bay


What is your idea/project in more detail?

Since opening in 1977, the La Brea Tar Pits Museum has been THE place to learn about Ice Age creatures. Saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, and Columbian mammoths, oh my! This fossil treasure trove is like no other in the world – a paleontologist’s dream. Although the Tar Pits hold a special place in the hearts of Angelenos, the Museum and grounds need aesthetic and interpretive updates. Let’s call it a much-needed facelift.

Through the Improvement Project, the Museum will enter Phase II of an initiative to bring cutting-edge Tar Pits science directly to park visitors. Plans include playful programming (like a terrifying life-sized puppet of an enormous Ice Age bird!), interpretive installations, and multimedia upgrades.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which oversees the Page Museum aka the La Brea Tar Pits Museum) experienced a dramatic reimagining in the last 10 years. The $135 million improvements include 7 gorgeous new galleries and 3.5 acres of beautiful gardens. We are taking our “lessons learned” from the NHM project and applying the same passion, aesthetic, and content commitment to the Tar Pits.

The process of change can be messy, and our end product is sometimes quite different from our initial plan, but always just right for our visitors. Our aim is to put the visitor first, creating exhibits and programs where research and collections meet the guest experience.

We are convening scientists, curators, design experts, exhibit builders, and members of the community to ensure that project content will be relevant. We will prototype programming with visitors and test exhibit components while gathering ongoing guest feedback on a wide array of performance metrics.

Last year, visitor surveys at the Tar Pits Museum came back with a clear challenge – our visitors needed us to do better. Last month we unveiled $500,000 in Phase I improvements, including:

• A prototype “Excavator Tour” which brings guests close to the process of discovery

• The reopening of our mid-century modern “Observation Pit”

• A refreshed Pit 91 observation site featuring the return of summer excavations.

• An edgy bi-annual fundraising gala called the Ice Age Hair Ball

• The conservation of the Mammoth sculptures floating in the “Lake Pit”

• The restoration of the bas-relief frieze on the Museum’s façade

While our “new digs” are great, our improvements are nowhere near complete. Aided by LA2050 grant funds and the generosity of our donors, next year we will invest an additional $1.1 million in the park and Museum. While plans are still fluid, they include the following:

• The creation of a Teratorn Puppet (a fearsome Ice Age Bird with a wingspan of 12 feet!) which will bring avian Ice Age creatures to life through our popular Ice Age Encounters performance program.

• The creation of new outdoor experiences which improve the overall understanding of the La Brea Tar Pits

• The continued refinement and creation of intergenerational programs and tours

• Multimedia interpretive components

• The pursuit of free Wi-Fi access for visitors

• The development of a Tar Pits Mobile App

• Technology updates for our check-in system

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to PLAY today? In 2050?

Today, the project will:

• Provide important scientific and visitor-friendly updates to the only urban National Natural Landmark in the United States—a unique space for visitors to play and learn

• Make Los Angeles proud to visit the Tar Pits by improving the overall visitor experience.

• Infuse playful interpretation into the park and Museum, creating an interactive destination for all to enjoy

• Through our improvement efforts, the Museum will become a lab for leisure activities and serious fun for all ages—from kindergarteners who attend at no cost through our School and Teachers Programs to adults who attend creative programs like our Ice Age Hairball.

In 2050 the project will:

• Ensure that our Earth, and the many places of play found on it, will last long into the future. Since the La Brea Tar Pits are a place where visitors can rediscover the past, specifically the most recent and most dramatic change in the Earth’s climate (the end of the last Ice Age), they have much to teach us about the future of our planet. Why did these animals and plants go extinct? Why did some animals and plants continue to thrive? By 2050, our researchers should have the answers to many of these questions, and will present them to the public in a way that helps us to make the best possible decisions about our planet, our economy, our future.

• By 2050, we hope that the entire Tar Pit experience will be reimagined. This grant and the incremental improvements proposed is just a stepping stone to a large initiative to protect, preserve, and reinterpret the Tar Pit experience. By 2050 the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum could be the premier destination for understanding climate change and the premier museum destination for serious play.

Whom will your project benefit?

• Los Angeles Area Children - The challenges of the Los Angeles education system (low test scores, low graduation rates, low college readiness, etc.) are well documented. Despite improvements in public safety, many neighborhoods still suffer from crime and a lack of safe places to for children to play. The La Brea Tar Pits Museum seeks to address these converging issues by providing a safe destination for learning and play for children who visit from all over the city—whether on a field trip or with their families. Last year the Museum hosted more than 49,000 students, teachers and chaperones from 575 schools. The Museum also welcomed over 35,500 visitors for free through special admission programs designed for those who could not otherwise afford a visit. These visitors see the Museum but also spend time touring the grounds, eating and playing.

• The Surrounding Community – The Miracle Mile area (where the La Brea Tar Pits are situated) is one of the most densely populated regions in the country. The area suffers from an acute shortage of public parks and outdoor recreation opportunities. The improvements associated with our project would enhance the park-going experience for the thousands of people living near-by, providing a rare place to lie down and relax, have a picnic, or spend time with a pet. With many businesses and cultural institutions within a short distance of the La Brea Tar Pits Park and Museum, an enhanced destination would bring additional customers and visitors to the area.

• The Greater Los Angeles Community – World-famous for its fossil deposits of Ice Age flora and fauna, the La Brea Tar Pits are an essential cornerstone of the city’s cultural landscape. Recent dips in attendance and satisfaction surveys at the Museum have made it clear that our offerings to visitors were stuck in the past and not providing an experience that was up to the standards Angelenos expect from this unique treasure. In response, we have already made programmatic improvements, but these new enhancements will be a sense of pride for locals and tourists alike. The important scientific discoveries of the region will not only be well cared for, but also well-presented through expert storytelling and exhibitry.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

With many changes occurring on the Miracle Mile, we are in very early conversations led by The Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum to partner with LACMA, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, and the Petersen Automotive Museum with the goal of promoting increased visitorship at each location. These changes coincide with a future Metro station planned in the immediate area which will also help drive attendance.

As a National Natural Landmark, the La Brea Tar Pits is in early stages of a renewed partnership with the National Park Service. Owing to a successful application in the past, the La Brea Tar Pits Museum plans to once again work with NPS to enhance the Museum and its grounds. This partnership will be successful because it will remind visitors of the national and international importance of the Tar Pits while providing the NPS a site to connect with visitors in a densely populated, urban region of Los Angeles. The partnership also allows each organization a platform for professional exchange and networking with shared access to the resources of each.

Individual teachers are also important partners and we work extensively with 10,000 annually to create museum curriculum for visiting schools. This “for teachers, by teachers” approach ensures that the information the Museum provides is relevant and helpful to visiting teachers and creates a generation of Angelenos who know and value the La Brea Tar Pits. Teachers are also welcomed to regularly scheduled teaching workshops that inform their field trip and classroom teaching while ensure school groups will visit the Museum.

The Museum is also working with a confidential technology partner to bring Wi-Fi service to the park and Museum, free of charge for visitors. This partner is currently working with the Museum, and has for the last two years on several very successful endeavors. With a wealth of fossils lying still undisturbed in the park, it is critical that the best-possible experts work with us to design a connectivity system that keeps the fossils safe while also providing uninterrupted service. A successful partnership would: enable streamlined guest services throughout the park with the aide of wireless connectivity, allow for highly interactive mobile activities to be designed for our indoor and outdoor visitors, provide a way for us to further track crowd flow to better enhance the experience.

How will your project impact the LA2050 PLAY metrics?

Access to open space and park facilities

Percentage of residents that feel safe in their neighborhoods

Residents within 1⁄4 mile of a park (Dream Metric)

Number of residents with easy access to a “vibrant” park (Dream Metric)

Number of parks with intergenerational play opportunities (Dream Metric)

Number (and quality) of informal spaces for play (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

By improving the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and the surrounding park space, the project positively impacts many parts of the LA2050 “Play” metric. Drawing from its location in the 23 acre Hancock Park, this project improves the park-going experience by providing a space with updated amenities and well-maintained open areas. The upgraded and updated grounds and Museum will provide space where people feel safe and comfortable while having the opportunity to discover and learn about the world–renowned natural history of the region. As one of the only dog-friendly parks in the densely populated area, the space will continue to function as a draw for people of all ages.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.


• Increased satisfaction of visitors

• Increased visitation by implementing improvements in visitor experience and marketing

• Increased revenues at Museum (tickets/membership/shop/photos)

• Increased visitation and enjoyment of the Park

• Increased understanding of Ice Age climate, and climate change through groundbreaking research done by Tar Pits staff and visiting researchers

How we will measure:

• The Museum holds a monthly Performance Metrics meeting with a cross-enterprise team that looks at visitor satisfaction ratings, attendance, shop sales, membership sales, cleanliness, and more to determine whether we are on track with the above goals. In support of this, the Museum has the following tools in place:

o A full time Director of Evaluation, who conducts on-going visitor research and testing to ensure concepts are understood by general public and goals are met

o Mystery Shopper reports which rate cleanliness, staff courtesy, value of experience; and Independent market research conducted both at the Museum via surveys and off-site via focus groups.

o An Independent Content Research Firm who helps us with concept testing pre- and post-design

o An Independent Market Research Firm who conducts surveys and focus groups both on and off site. Results of this survey provide a “net promoter score” that can be monitored over time, along with qualitative feedback on guest experience and consumer perceptions.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

• Metrics have played an important role in the physical and philosophical transformation of our organization, which has been taking place over the last decade. By first tracking simple statistics like attendance and revenue, and over time peeling deeper into these and other subjects in a transparent and cross-enterprise approach, we have adjusted our institutional culture to that of a well-oiled machine that can work together to problem-solve challenges. Today, we seek to be a preeminent family of Museums – not just good, not just great, but preeminent. As such, about a year ago we noticed that our “net promoter scores” and other visitor satisfaction scores were beginning to slip below what we felt were acceptable. (We aim for 90% satisfaction at the Tar Pits, which we have achieved at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park.) It was clear from our findings that improvements to the Tar Pits and Museum needed to be made.

• The lessons garnered via the reimagining 60% of the NHM campus in Exposition Park has helped to create a new standard of excellence for our organization – and a template for award-winning success in exhibitry. Armed with a now-formalized process for creativity and testing, and the confidence in our funding and ability to finish a project on time and on budget, our approach to this project will no doubt be spot on.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

We have intentionally broken our Tar Pits Improvement project into phases to ensure steady delivery of enhanced experiences over regular intervals. This design allows us to promote new offerings and rebuild our attendance over time. Last year we successfully completed a similar array of improvements at the Tar Pits on time and on budget. We have no question that the improvements planned for the coming 12 months can be completed.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

One major challenge for this project is to select improvements that will be instantly meaningful to the guest experience while being relevant for the distant future. Specifically, while we aren’t prepared to launch a complete Museum overhaul at this time, a reimagining of the Museum is quite possible in the coming years. Therefore, we want to invest in projects that can be meaningful to these long-term aspirations -- either as prototypes for larger ideas, or components that will be repurposed when a completely new experience is created. We do not want to be wasteful in our upgrades. Our strategy for successful implementation is to continue with our creative approach as described above including testing new ideas and experimenting with programming. No doubt, lessons learned from this process will inform an even larger renovation in the future.

What resources does your project need?

Network/relationship support

Money (financial capital)

Volunteers/staff (human capital)

Publicity/awareness (social capital)

Community outreach

Quality improvement research