By Erika Sherk
Get ready to meet the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. This monster of a museum is under construction and when it opens, it will bring the prehistoric past to life in a gigantic way. 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 – 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. The discovery ignited what ultimately became a lifelong passion in the young man. From then on, Lakusta could be found several times a week at the Pipestone Creek site. He’d stay until the sun waned and 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 but eventually 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 onwards. They excavated and prepared the tangle of bones, often in the mucky midst of mud and rain. 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. It turned out to be an exceptionally dense bonebed – the densest horned dinosaur bonebed ever found, 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 – beyond the horns they were also adorned with a bony frill and a nasal boss – a gnarly protrusion of bone on their snouts. They were not the prettiest of beasts but it was an attractive discovery and one with great ramifications – when there is one dinosaur discovery, usually there are others out there to be found.
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 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, yet likely similar resources, the opportunity for discovery is clearly immense.
It’s an exciting thought, both for scientists and people-of-all-stripes. Dinosaurs have been making waves here since the first were discovered nearly 40 years ago. Locals and visitors alike are generally intrigued by these fascinating backyard remains. 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 enhanced 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. 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, and done 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.
First things first: this museum needed a name. Previously planned to be the River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum, the name was deemed too negative, too ‘scary’ for some and too many syllables. 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 interest in dinosaurs, world-wide. His work is well-known internationally. In the past few years he has been 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 awards and accolades. 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.)
Dr. Currie isn’t the only superstar involved. The project has attracted several ‘friends-in-high-places’ (and not just the palaeos scouting for fossils from helicopter-height.) 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 nearly three 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.
It’s not all celebrity stories, though, it’s a science story too. The past several 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.) Dr. Phil Bell, project palaeontologist at the time, 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 plesiosaur – 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. Two intriguing hadrosaur fossils were found in 2013, one a chunk of skull found on the Redwillow River and the other, an exciting, mostly-complete hadrosaur skeleton found by the Tourmaline Oil Corp near Spirit River. It’s a veritable treasure-trove of discovery out there, according to the palaeontologists who frequent the area.
Beyond the discoveries, many great surprises have come along the way, from the world’s first glow-in-the-dark coin featuring our Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, to America’s best-selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell writing a book called ‘The Bonebed,’ inspired by her trip to visit our project at Pipestone Creek.
There’s no doubt it’s been a journey – but it’s finally reaching the finish line. The museum project broke ground on June 21, 2013 and now construction is close to finished. The facility’s doors will open in 2014 when the final portion of the funding is acquired. The building itself will be completed in October 2014 – something that is being closely watched as its design has been featured in several architectural magazines, including AZURE and NUVO – attracting attention worldwide.
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 diversify the employment opportunities, through the 49 person years of employment it will provide annually.
Education is also a focus impact and there are 10 original, highly-creative curriculum-connected education programs extensively tested and ready to transition into the museum. These ridiculously entertaining, incredibly informative K-12 school programs have already positively influenced over 5,000 students since their launch in February 2011 and over 7,700 people have participated in our public programs at Pipestone Creek Park. Community events including Family Dino Day, Fossil Hunter Geocache and Dino Maze Day have drawn 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, support for the project is higher than ever. Sponsor generosity has been at an all-time high lately, with the County of Grande Prairie contributing $12.8 million, the Province of Alberta giving $10 million, the City of Grande Prairie $3.5 million and the MD of Greenview giving $250,000 and pledging a further $250,000 in 2015. Many other individual and corporate sponsors have jumped in as well, and whether they’re donating hundreds of thousands or a few dollars, it has all helped bring this idea to life.
There is still work to do, however. With about $4.3 million remaining to finish the project, fundraising is as crucial as ever. There are several initiatives presently underway to accomplish this. The most exciting one is the Naming Sponsorship Program. There are a 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 attached to a ferocious Gorgosaurus skeleton?
Once those final dollars come in, once the exhibits, skeletons and murals are firmly in place, 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. 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. Are you ready?