Get Stuck in Our New Tar Mobile

Explore the newest wheeled wonder serving LAUSD students—the first-ever La Brea Tar Pits Mobile Museum.

Crowds wait for entrance in the new Tar Pits Mobile Museum

Published September 6, 2023

Going to a world-class institution like the Natural History Museum or La Brea Tar Pits is a great way for a teacher, camp director or other community youth leader to educate and entertain the next generation for a day. However, getting that same experience when unable to attend either museum can be a bit of a wild goose chase.

But now, the education outreach department for NHMLAC has added a third Mobile Museum to our repertoire, officially expanding our offerings not only to include both museums, but also the entire primary school age range from kindergarten through high school.

A small child plays in the new Tar Pits Mobile Museum
NHMLAC’s Mobile Museums are designed for learning through play.

With the two Mobile Museums previously available—one themed after archaeology and the other marine biology—covering the latter portions of elementary school and beyond, the new addition of a Tar Pits trailer allows a K–2 audience to learn about and play as their favorite Ice Age megafauna.

“The students can really learn through play [in the new Mobile Museum] and it's incredibly child-centered,” says Molly Porter, Director of Education. “We're keeping our values about authentic scientific inquiry, but we're making it work for 5–8 year olds. It’s a trifecta of the what, the where, and the how all coming together to be a really powerful experience for schools.”

Father and son welcomed by Nicole Duran in the Tar Pits Mobile Museum
Nicole Duran helps guests to the new Mobile Museum.

With interactive components like anatomical puzzles, digging through black “tar” streamers to find “fossils” and the ability to transform it into a bit of a prehistoric playground, the new trailer is a hands-on dream for students who learn better through activities than they would through other methods. It also makes it a perfect fit for young audiences in the community even outside of LAUSD, where the two existing Mobile Museums primarily serve.

“This age range is really me-centered, so they’re going to be thinking about how they’re part of the experience,” says Nicole Duran, Associate Director of Education Outreach. “It allows them to be part of the animals that were here in their own neighborhoods a long time ago. They’re also going to be able to participate by using their bodies through active kinesthetics, whether that’s through excavation, exploring the environment, or the animals themselves.”

“We’re also dealing with students who are learning to read and not yet reading fully, so we made a very conscious choice to not have much text in the trailer,” Porter adds. “We don’t want there to be barriers, so we’re really keeping it very nonverbal and focused on intuitive behaviors.”

The Mobile Museums are designed to bring portions of the full NHMLAC experience to those who need it. Low-income schools and communities are one of the primary audiences for Mobile Museums as a whole, and their expanded presence will allow them to assist these pockets of Los Angeles County even better. 

A girl explores the new Tar Pits Mobile Museum.
The immersive environment transports students to the Ice Age past and a world of exploration.

Not only is the Tar Pits trailer designed for a younger audience, but it’s also twice the size of each of the other two. It allows for teachers to spend time with their entire classes inside of the Mobile Museum rather than having to separate into breakout groups, and the entire environment transforms from educational puzzles and activities to an open and interactive Ice Age playspace. With its puzzle-filled Murphy tables folded up and excavation drawers locked, the new space in “immersion mode” can also be left open for large audiences to come, play and go as they please at community events.

Interior of the new Tar Pits Mobile Museum
The spacious interior offers plenty of room for exploring Ice Age science.

“From the initial development, one goal was to design this space for both K–2 school audiences and community participants to be successful within this space,” Duran says. “That's not something we’ve been able to really do with the other trailers. They go out to community events, but they were designed for the school audience. This trailer is designed for all audiences and participants to help bring the Ice Age to life.”

“We also specifically designed different modes that you could pick and choose based on the audience,” Porter says. “If it's thousands of people at a community event, we're going to have it in Ice Age walkthrough immersion mode. If it's a smaller crew, we can have the excavation pits open. It’s really flexible that way.”

Of course, all of the Mobile Museums work closely with NHMLAC’s Research and Collections teams to ensure that things are scientifically faithful while still being understandable. As educational tools, the trailers combined have served more than 735,000 students over the years, and that number figures to grow rapidly with an additional larger option going forward. But perhaps the even more impressive number for the new trailer is simply “two,” which is the amount of real fossils in the Tar Pits experience.

Exterior of the trailer housing the new Tar Pits Mobile Museum
Honk if you’re ready for the Tar Mobile to visit your school!

But as scientific and educational as the trailers may be, none of it matters if a K–2 audience isn’t interested in it. So in a scientific world ruled by facts and logic, the most important thing of all was to make sure that kids can do what they do best.

“The big idea is to learn through play, learn through imagination, and learn that here in your own neighborhood, there were some similar and some different animals during the Ice Age,” Duran says. “It's a play-based program where you can experience and participate in science in fun, playful, imaginative ways.”

Registration for the Spring 2024 semester opens on October 11 and is expected to fill up quickly.

The Ice Age Discoveries Mobile Museum is made possible by: the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, in honor of Lisa D. Hansen; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; and the Ahmanson Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the special license plate featuring the image of Snoopy, with permission and support from Peanuts Worldwide (Section 5169 of the Vehicle Code) for the Museum Grant Program under the California Cultural and Historical Endowment.