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The skeleton that the Page Museum doesn't want you to see

November 24, 2009 |  6:00 am


You could call it the skeleton in the Page Museum's closet.

For years, the George C. Page Museum in Los Angeles has housed a 9,000-year-old set of bones that is said to be the only human remains recovered from the Rancho La Brea area, which is famous for its prehistorical tar pits. A cast of the skull was on display at the museum for a period but the museum withdrew it from exhibition about five years ago and placed it in storage along with the original bones.

Skull Now, a former volunteer at the museum has published images of a facial reconstruction of the specimen against the museum's wishes. She claims that the museum is scared that her reconstruction, in which the specimen is depicted as having Native American features, will encourage tribes to reclaim the bones for reburial.

"Obviously they're not completely happy about it," said Melissa Cooper, the former volunteer in question, when asked about going public with her work. She said that the museum won't display her images out of fear that the Chumash, a Native American tribe, will attempt to take the bones away.

Officials at the Page Museum denied many of Cooper's claims, saying that the museum only approved Cooper's project provided that the results would not be published or disseminated anywhere.  

"It was a personal exercise. She wasn't doing it for us," said John Harris, who serves as chief curator at the Page Museum.

He also said that the museum is in compliance with regulations pertaining to Native American artifacts.

Informally known as "La Brea Woman," the incomplete skeleton was discovered in 1914 and is thought to belong to a young female who stood under 5 feet tall. Researchers determined the gender of the specimen by examining the shape of its pelvis.

Cooper, who has worked as a forensic artist for various institutions in California, said she completed her work on La Brea Woman a couple of months ago. The reconstruction consists of two-dimensional renderings of what the female's face may have looked like based on the structure of the original skull. (Cooper said she used a cast of the skull, not the original, for her work.)

"There are hints within the skull that she may have had Native American features," said Cooper.  "You can tell by the way the nose was pointed and the depth of her eyes. Based on the skull, she had Asian features which does coincide with Native Americans."

The Page Museum doesn't hide the fact that La Brea Woman resides in its storage facilities. But officials said that they believe it isn't appropriate to display something purporting to be La Brea Woman when it is only conjecture or speculation.

Cooper, who said she worked as a volunteer at the museum from 2006 until this year, has sent images of her work to various media outlets, including The Times. She has also published some of these images on her personal website. Asked about Harris' assertion that the work was supposed to be private, she said, "No, they never told me that."

As of Monday, the museum said it has not yet taken steps to halt Cooper's actions. "We'll have to see what she's done," said Jim Gilson, an administrator at the Page Museum and vice president and general counsel at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (The Page Museum operates as a satellite facility of the Natural History Museum. The two institutions share administrators and both are public institutions.)

Cooper said she isn't affiliated with any Native American organizations. She said she plans on selling limited editions of her work on La Brea Woman.

-- David Ng

Photo (top): Page Museum. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Photo (bottom): a facial reconstruction of La Brea Woman. Credit: Melissa Cooper.

Comments () | Archives (40)

The skeleton had been shown for decades, I remember seeing it many times, and wondered why they would then put a hologram type of display over it of a young topless woman, that National Georgraphic voyeurism of other cultures thing. Though they did change her to fully clothed later. It hasnt been on display for decades I guess, my son who is now 20 never saw them, but had been shown before.

Now, this woman is obviously lying. She says she knows the museum doesnt want a reconstruction shown for fear of a native american burial, even though the tribe knows they are there. As it wasnt a holy burial grown, they must have agreed long ago to not pursue them, but probably were not happy about representation. Have some respect for the dead.

As this woman obviously has none for anyone, except her "career". Artistes. Anything is justified for ones own personal self expression, and revealing of great "skills". The self absorbed magnificaton of the artistes in our art schools leads to such vain and arrogant behavior. No one else matters, no responsibility to the rest of humanity, her elevated sesne of entitled self overcomes all, "self expression" being the goal of her "art". Art is NOT self expression, never has been, never will be. She means no more or less than anyone else, and has other issues to weigh, but she places herself over all.

How typical.

art collegia delenda est

The fact that these Native American bone's weren't returned to the Tribe of origin is cause enough for this story to be told. If her ancestor's were from this very site, the Indians of today have every right to have their burial grounds given back to them. This happen's too often without anything being done. I hope that this wrong is going to be corrected sometime soon. I also don't care who knew about it, and never told the Tribal people in the area. They are the people who should have been contacted on this matter.

Nicely put Deb.

As I said, the bones had been shown for decades before taken down maybe 20 years or so ago. They are not burial grounds, she was caught i the tar just as the animals were, or murdered. They are not sacred grounds, and so have not been a big story.

Ms. Cooper, even a volunteer is bound by a code of ethics and though you may feel you were never told about restrictions on your work; you are obligated first to the museum and its activities and most particuilarly before using the commissioned work to advance your own popularity.
A commissioned work in the museum world is just that, for the museum. Not for personal gain, not for displaying on your web site and least of all not for selling sketches so that you may profit.

I look forward to attending your trial.

Deb is correct. This small story rases more questions then The Page Museum has answers to

Well Duh..... what the hell else would 9,000 year old bones be but Native Americans - what a silly story.

Great. Something else for the indians to whine about.

"She said she plans on selling limited editions of her work on La Brea Woman."

Oh yeah, her motives are clearly pure.

I feel like I'm missing something here. How is this a story? Isn't it obvious that this is a Native American skeleton? What else would it be? Hasn't everyone involved always known that? And what did the museum do that's in question? Not display one of their former volunteer's illustrations? The headline of the article implies some sort of conspiracy, but it just seems like a routine display decision.

I may be a bit confused, but if the skeleton of the La Brea Woman is dated at 9,000 years old, who else COULD it be, besides a Native American?

The content of the article doesn't surprise me. What DOES surprise, and disappoint, me is that this "artist" has enough work experience to have a resume that includes "various institutions in California", and yet has stooped to such a pathetic level as to sell her story, and limited editions of her work. If I were looking for an employee in her industry, I certainly wouldn't hire someone who acted SO unprofessional. If she felt that this information needed to be shared with local Tribes, there are much more tactful ways of doing so.

does it matter? it is for the sake of all that defines and has defined western science (int this country and in others) that these remains become the property of institutions like the page, and of the county for that matter. in this "country", this young civilization of 233 years, we have much to learn about the treatment of human remains that have rested on these lands for centuries. shame on both parties; their personal and institutional gain appears to take precedence over nature itself.

Is there any possibility of making molds of all of the bones and recreating the display from castings? The bones could then be turned over for burial. Some might object that the bones could be damaged, but I would argue that they are already somewhat worse for wear than they were when their owner was ambulatory.

Serious question for you grammar types: is it "prehistorical" (as used in the article) or "prehistoric"?

Sorry deb. If its 9k yrs old, can any current tribe even claim it? Isnt that kinda older than they are? This woman justg wants the publicity to sell her art. Just like Warhol, this is her 15 minutes. The trial should be interesting like GT said.

"She said she plans on selling limited editions of her work on La Brea Woman"

This last line tells it all. She is trying to make a buck, and stirring up a bit of controvery is likely to make a bit more money. If it weren't for this controversy, there would be very little interest in her work.

I am almost 23, and I remember seeing the woman on exhibit when I was a little kid. When I went back to the museum about a year ago and it was gone, I wondered if I was losing my mind and had seen it at a different natural history museum. Somebody working there told me it had been taken down but didn't know when or why.

"Sorry deb. If its 9k yrs old, can any current tribe even claim it?"

Of course not, lizbetty, but that doesn't stop some tribes from trying to reclaim bones anyway, relying on oral history to make anthropologic connections.

Will LACMA next door be accused of trying to hide something if they decide to take some paintings out of rotation and store them for awhile?

Great. Something else for the indians to whine about.
Posted by: brettstrodamus | November 24, 2009 at 03:12 PM

Oh great something new for White Hicks to whine about.

So many opinions with little or no knowledge to substantiate them, how ignorant. All contemporary tribes are descended from common Amerindian ancestors. It is the Indigeni0us people of the Americas whose philosophies and spiritual and religious beliefs matter, not contemporary non indigenous peoples. La Brea woman is an ancestor off American Indians and yes modern American Indian tribes are descendants of paleo Amerindian people of the Americas. And yes they have been and can be linked via aDNA and mtDNA, which is what I do, and yes this has been done in California already, any one ever read the news or you just like to spout racist ignorance with our knowledge ? The remains belong buried in their home land and not in a box in a museum. All burials are holy, all burial grounds sacred and ancestors respected, unlike contemporary non indigenous people who see only a political position in ownership, you cannot own another human, that was outlawed long ago.

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