The Rarest of Finds

An interview with world-renowned museologist and head of Alberta’s new dinosaur museum, George Jacob.

The northern Alberta town of Wembley (population 1,410) is set in a land of stark extremes, at once epic and intimate, natural and industrial. The nearest metropolis is the northern city of Grande Prairie (population 68,556), 25 kilometres east along the Alaska Highway. This is the province’s oil and gas heartland – a truly grand prairie under an immeasurable cerulean sky.

Those same geological layers of prehistoric matter that provide the area’s abundance of fossil fuels are also what create ideal conditions for the preservation of fossils. Just south of Wembley lies the Pipestone Creek bonebed, one of the world’s richest paleontological sites and the reason why this unlikely town has just become home to what is arguably the world’s most comprehensive dinosaur museum.

Pipestone Creek

Visitors to the museum can travel by helicopter to the Pipestone Creek bonebed… (Photo: Joanne Cousins)

Yet long before the $40-million Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum opened in September 2015, there was a buzz around one of the museum’s most significant finds: its president, George Jacob. The Indian-born museologist is celebrated for both his grand schemes and precise attention to detail, designing exhibits around the globe for heavy hitters like the Smithsonian Institution. And now he’s found himself in as surprising a place as you could imagine.

In this region, where the ride of choice is a pickup and the uniform is blue jeans and a ball cap, George Jacob gets up every morning, starts his Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC and checks that his pocket kerchief matches his impeccably knotted tie.

When I sit down with Jacob in the museum’s modern glass-walled boardroom looking out over the exhibit galleries, groups of schoolkids are joyously tearing around below, where dinosaur roars echo off the walls. Jacob, who is 51 but could pass for decades younger, sits serenely above it all, his unassertive demeanour offering sharp contrast to his bespoke suit and ear-length curls. He smiles often, but usually with a certain bemused reserve, and regularly animates his reflections with quotes from artists such as Derek Walcott and Leonard Cohen. I ask what drew him to Wembley and if he is enjoying it.

Pipestone Creek dig

…and maybe even join a dig. (Photo: Sean Trostem)

“Well,” he replies in a soft voice, “I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of it at first, but now I like it quite a lot. Ultimately, the challenge of it all was just so great that I couldn’t turn it down.”

The challenge he refers to was primarily logistical. When he came on board just over a year before the museum’s opening, some of the exterior build, most of the interior build and all of the exhibits had yet to be constructed – or, in some cases, even imagined.

The finished product, however, is a dramatically modern building, all angles and edges from the outside. Inside, Jacob made sure that the organic flow of the museum reflected the layered excavation experience of a dig. Dinosaur skeletons tower over it all, while monster marine lizards swim on LCD touch screens. With its 3-D printers, paleo-labs, National Geographic theatre and interactive displays, the museum is like the best classroom you never had. And much of it exists because of Jacob’s famed ability to marry overarching vision with scrupulous attention to detail.

Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

The museum’s edgy modern design provides a dramatic showcase for its multi-million-year-old contents. (Photo: Sean Trostem)

“There’s such a difference between supplying information and telling a story,” Jacob tells me. You could say the same about him. His CV gives only a hint of his peripatetic history. Born in Cochin, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Jacob finished high school and went into a master’s program at a technology and science institute in Pilani, Rajasthan. He started at the University of Toronto in 1994 via a Commonwealth Scholarship and, after working on museum assignments, began his studies at the Yale School of Management in 2000.

Today, Jacob is recognized as a leading thinker on the meaning of museums, but his hands-on design portfolio is so wide-ranging that it’s hard to believe it’s the resumé of a single person. In addition to dozens of museum assignments in places such as Singapore, India, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Egypt and across the United States, he previously established three separate institutions: a Sikh history museum in India, an astronomy museum in Hawaii and a science and technology centre in India. He also worked on the permanent exhibit for the Smithsonian’s most prized icon, the Star-Spangled Banner. And now he’s set to redefine the world of paleo-tourism.

Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (Photo: Candice Popik)

Jacob’s innovations, such as helicopter tours over the bonebed, are all about the evolution from “information” to “story.” Near where the Pipestone Creek feeds into the Wapiti River, the helicopter pilot dips down into the valley to show off the cutbanks where the excavations are taking place. It’s an aerial insight into the reality of a dig (which can be accompanied by on-the-ground visits to the site).

“I can tell you,” laughs Jacob, “the chopper with a big pachyrhinosaurus decal is quite the attention-grabber when it lands and takes off from our helipad right beside the Alaska Highway!”

Interactive displays

Interactive displays mingle with dig recreations. (Photo: Sean Trostem)

Jacob knows how to make a statement: He has also forged creative partnerships with National Geographic (the Currie being the only Canadian museum to have access to the organization’s film archive), the Edmonton International Airport (which he persuaded to stage a major dino display to build buzz around the museum’s opening) and even with actor Dan Aykroyd and his family (paleontology enthusiasts turned Hollywood dino ambassadors). Jacob is expertly deploying every resource, not so much thinking outside the box as making us wonder why we ever even used the box in the first place.

Jacob is not so much thinking outside the box as making us wonder why we used the box in the first place.

Perhaps it goes without saying by now that dinosaurs are not always front and centre during an interview with George Jacob. At one point, I ask him if the museum knew precisely what they were getting when they hired him.

Kids at interactive display

(Photo: Sean Trostem)

“Probably not,” he replies with a half-smile. “But soon enough I think they understood.”

After we finish chatting, I take a few minutes to poke around the gift shop. I notice a rack of elegantly illustrated cards, many of them depicting the museum itself, printed in striking red and orange ink. I pick one up and turn it over. The back page notes the price and where it was printed, and there, in small letters, it also reads, “Designed by George Jacob.” I can’t say I’m surprised.

The List: Spring 2016
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The List: Spring 2016

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