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

November 24, 2009 |  6:00 am

Page

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denied many of Cooper's claims, saying that the museum only approved Cooper's project provided that the results would not be published or disseminated anywhere.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

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