Our Story

By Erika Sherk

The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum has begun construction! It will open its doors in December 2014. It’s going to change the face of this region in a very significant way and it’s an exciting time watching it rise from what was formerly a farmer’s field.

But a museum of this magnitude doesn’t come about overnight. What’s the story, you’re wondering? Cue the time-travel music.

It was meant to be an innocent nature walk when Al Lakusta set out for a hike in 1974 along the leafy banks of Pipestone Creek. As he strolled along, the last thing he imagined was that his casual adventure would create a chain reaction spanning decades. The young school teacher was entirely unaware that he was about to unwittingly kick off years of research culminating in the creation of a massive, world-class museum facility.

No, Lakusta was just poking around for leaf fossils. However, serendipity stepped in and he found something much more exciting – dinosaur bones. It kicked off a lifelong passion for him. From then on, Lakusta could be found several times a week at the Pipestone Creek site. He’d stay until the sun waned and then carry out his fossil finds in an old backpack. It also kicked off a major scientific interest in the area, one that hadn’t previously existed. Years ticked past. Details of the fossils reached the eyes and ears of palaeontologists at the Royal Tyrell Museum (or the Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology as it was known then) and soon several came up north to investigate – including Dr. Philip Currie himself.

The small team of palaeontologists put in weeks at the bonebed from 1986 on. Often in the mud and rain, they excavated and prepared the tangle of bones. Painstakingly, they began to piece together the puzzle. This was no run-of-the-mill discovery. This was a bonebed – a mass grave site of hundreds, possibly thousands, of animals. An exceptionally dense bonebed, in fact. Most such sites have 20-25 fossils per square metre. This site had over 200 bones per square metre. There were so many bones, in fact, that it was a challenge for the scientists excavating the important ones – there were so many others in the way. It was monogeneric, meaning it was all the same horned dinosaur and best of all, it wasn’t a species that had ever been seen before.

In 2008 it was made official. The new dinosaur was announced to the world as Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, honouring its discoverer. Pachyrhinosaurus means ‘thick-nosed lizard.’ The dinosaurs that had died at the site were not pretty – they were horned, of course, but were also adorned with a bony frill and a nasal boss – a gnarly protrusion of bone on their snouts. Not handsome beasts but an attractive discovery and one with great ramifications. When there is one dinosaur discovery, usually there are more out there somewhere.

It proved true. Since the Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai announcement, several other dinosaur bonebeds have been discovered in the Peace Country. One carries a second, unidentified species of Pachyrhinosaurus, another is filled with the bones of hadrosaurs or duck-billed dinosaurs, also an unknown species. A third species has also just been found at the original Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed, likely Saurornitholestes, a small meat-eating dinosaur.

The remarkable thing is that these findings are just the tip of the T. rex tail, so to speak. Southern Alberta is perhaps the richest dinosaur region anywhere in the world and over the last century 45 species have been identified. With only a handful identified so far in Northern Alberta, the opportunity for discovery is clearly immense.

Dinosaurs have been making waves here since the first were discovered nearly 40 years ago. Locals and visitors alike are intrigued and looking to know more about their fascinating backyard riches. For years scientists at the Grande Prairie Regional College worked with a group of dedicated enthusiasts to pursue the idea of an educational facility promoting palaeontology. Such remarkable scientific findings coupled with the great natural human interest in these tremendous prehistoric beings made it almost a necessity. Who doesn’t know at least one child completely bonkers about dinosaurs? (Or one adult, for that matter?) The fact that more dinosaur finds are virtually guaranteed in the area enhances the need for a significant facility. A museum would serve as a hub for the palaeontologists working in the area and showcase the new dinosaur species as they are lifted from obscurity to fame.

Could a museum be done? It was time to find out. As the idea of an innovative, interactive facility evolved, it became evident it wouldn’t be a small undertaking. Six years of feasibility studies, tourism studies, site studies, economic impact studies and geo technical studies followed. In 2009, the County of Grande Prairie No. 1 decided it was time to either make it happen or set the dream aside, maybe forever. There was a great amount of interest in having the museum in the community and beyond. But could it be done right? Could the area build and sustain a multi-million dollar facility of international caliber? A final viability study established that yes, this could be done. It could be done very well. From that point on, it was full steam ahead towards a dinosaur museum.

The Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative was created as the task force in late 2009. Its duty: to carry out the work of fundraising, contracting building architects and exhibit architects and managing all the other tasks needed to bring the museum from an idea to a grand opening. This would include developing creative, entertaining education programs, continuing the study of the area’s palaeontology and raising the profile, both locally and beyond, of the immense resources in the Peace Country. The Initiative was initially funded by several regional and provincial partners, with the County of Grande Prairie and Rural Alberta Development Fund as the leaders and the County later taking all responsibility of funding. The River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum Society was created to provide a board and oversight from a variety of stakeholders in the region.

One of the first orders of business was the name. Previously planned to be the River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum, the old name was deemed too negative, too ‘scary’ for some and too big a mouthful. While some protested – including Mrs. Whipple’s class at Wembley Elementary School: “we’re not afraid!” there were other excellent reasons for a different name. In April 2011 it was declared the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. Dr. Currie has been involved nearly from the start and has an international following based on his myriad accomplishments and utter passion for palaeontology. It would also be a way to honour a true palaeontological superstar who has worked tirelessly to ignite Albertans’ passion for their rich dinosaur resources. His work is well-known; no doubt his mantel is full after the past year. He was awarded the international Explorers Club’s highest honour, the Explorers Medal, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s Gold Medal, adding them to his Alberta Order of Excellence and myriad other honours. Despite the number of medals and trophies bestowed upon him, Dr. Currie is a humble, kind individual and just as dinosaur-crazy as he was when he was six years old (potentially even more so.)

The Dinosaur Initiative has been busy in its 3+ years of existence. Though there is always something going on, whether a community event, a fundraising drive, a major palaeontological find or a new, hilarious education program, there have been some highlights.

Dr. Currie was the expedition leader in July 2011, when celebrities converged in Northern Alberta to dig dinosaurs and celebrate the future museum. Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd and his family hosted the Aykroyd Family and Friends Dinosaur Ball and Celebrity Dino Dig, bringing friends like philanthropist Robert Kennedy Jr., Criminal Minds star Matthew Gray Gubler, best-selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell and others. The celebrities excavated fossils for 2.5 days and finished off their experience with a formal gala ball on July 23. The event attracted global media coverage and raised nearly $450,000 for the museum.

One major spin-off effect of the Aykroyd Ball was the Born to Explore episode that was created at the time. A four-person camera crew spent three days filming on the bonebed and in the ballroom. The episode has now aired multiple times to audiences of over 1 million each time.

It’s not all celebrity stories, though, it’s a science story too. The past two field seasons have brought palaeontologists from around the world to excavate and study. In just two summers scientists have found a range of fossilized bones, footprints and teeth, including a new and unidentified species of theropod (meat-eating dinosaur.) Project palaeontologist Dr. Phil Bell published a ground-breaking study in February 2012 that differentiated between two species of dinosaur using skin impressions. It was the first time anything other than bones had been used to accomplish this. Two newly-discovered hadrosaur skeletons complete with incredible fossilized impressions of their scaly hide are expected to change everything scientists know about these animals. The bones of a marine predator – think of the Loch Ness Monster to imagine what it looked like – were found in 2012, as was a fossilized insect that is likely another new species. It’s a veritable treasure-trove of discovery out there, according to the palaeontologists who frequent the area. However, scientists suffered a blow last summer when a beautiful hadrosaur specimen was vandalized while still out in the field. The story received international attention – people were horrified at the idea that someone would wantonly destroy such a major scientific discovery. The RCMP investigation is ongoing. But so is the palaeontology work. There are enough dinosaurs here for scientists to still be discovering them decades from now.

The Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, the dinosaur Al Lakusta found so many years ago, was the centre of a media frenzy in May 2012. The Royal Canadian Mint announced that it was launching the world’s first glow-in-the-dark coin. On that coin? Al Lakusta’s dinosaur! This news made it to TIME magazine, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and more. Lakusta himself even made an appearance (by Skype) on The Colbert Report.

The Pipestone Creek and Wapiti River dinosaur bonebeds became even more famous in October when America’s best-selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell launched her latest book, The Bonebed. It was inspired by her experience last summer excavating the sites.

A second blowout gala fundraiser was held in July 2012, the Dino Country Ball. The event raised nearly $230,000 for the project. It was at the ball that Wayne Drysdale, Minister of Infrastructure for the Province of Alberta, announced that the province would fund the museum at $10 million. A third, ‘An Evening in Paris’ brought in over $300,000 in June 2013.

On to the happy ending. The museum project broke ground on June 21, 2013 and now construction is underway. The facility’s doors will open in December 2014. Everything is ready. The tendering documents are prepared, the site is secured, a beautiful, striking high-tech building has been designed, the exhibit design is nearing completion and ten curriculum-connected education programs have already impacted thousands of students.

The museum is going to impact the economy of the region in a big way. It will attract visitors who will come for the main purpose of visiting the museum. For those already visiting, it will encourage them to stay another day, leading to increased revenue for service industries including restaurants, hotels and stores. The construction phase alone will inject over $60 million into the economy and create an overall tax revenue of $13.7 million. Not only will the museum’s existence help develop Grande Prairie and region as a major Canadian tourist destination, it will establish the area as the northwest hub for a province-wide Dinosaur Trail. The museum will aid in diversifying the economy, not to mention diversity the employment opportunities, through the 49 person years of employment it will provide annually.

As the building goes up, regional students will continue to be entertained and enlightened by the Initiative’s education programs. Education is an active focus of the project. Project staff have created a number of engaging, interactive programs for students and the public. The K-12 curriculum-connected school programs have positively impacted 5,000 students since their launch in February 2011 and over 7,700 people have participated in our public programs at Pipestone Creek Park, including dinosaur bonebed tours and theatrical presentations. Annual community events including Family Dino Day and the Fossil Hunter Geocache draw crowds of up to 700 each time. These successes will only grow as the team transitions this programming into the museum space itself.

It’s been a long hike to this point. However, the past year has been full of good news, including the Province of Alberta’s pledge of $10 million to the Museum, the County of Grande Prairie bringing their contribution up to over $12.5 million, the City to $3.5 million, the MD of Greenview to $250,000 and many other individual and corporate contributions pitching in to make the move to construction possible.

There is still work to do, however. With about $4.5 million remaining to finish the project, fundraising is as crucial as ever. There are several initiatives presently underway to accomplish this. The first is the Naming Sponsorship Program. There are an exciting range of opportunities available. The program is simple: donate a certain amount and attach your name to an exhibit, room or other location in the museum. Can you picture your name above an awe-inspiring Albertosaurus skeleton?

When the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum opens its doors to the public it is going to change the area significantly. A facility of this caliber will create a steady flow of top-level scientific minds into the region, it will vastly increase tourism and will touch virtually every family in the area. It will house two classrooms equipped with SMART technology, a theatre, a gift shop and a restaurant – in a town where no eating establishment exists. It will also link northern Alberta to its palaeontological partners in the South – Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum – creating a provincial Dinosaur Trail. The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum will alert the world to the unique resources here and their ability to swing open the door onto our prehistoric past. Like the dinosaur bones’ fossilization, we might say, it is only a matter of time. See you in December 2014.