Former CEO concerned about future of northwestern Alberta dinosaur museum

The former president and CEO of a dinosaur museum in northwestern Alberta is concerned a lack of expertise among remaining staff could hinder the institution as it struggles with sustainability.

‘If my expertise was required, I would have definitely stayed on to make sure those objectives are realized’

An exhibit the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, Alta. is pictured on a slow summer day. The museum attracted more visitors than expected during its inaugural year, but doesn't expect to keep that up. (CBC)

The former president of a dinosaur museum in northwestern Alberta is concerned a lack of expertise among remaining staff could hinder the institution as it struggles with sustainability.

"I think it is quite thin at the moment," said George Jacob, a veteran administrator who led the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, 480 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, through its first year.

Jacob's last day as the museum's president and chief executive officer was Oct. 18.

He was let go with nine months left in his contract. Asked about the departure, Jacob deferred to the museum board. He said it was the board's decision but emphasized he wasn't interested in leaving the job early.

"I had made a commitment to not only ensure that the museum comes up, but also make sure that it has the kind of quality of programs and innovative approach that would set it apart from some of its peers," Jacob said.
George Jacob, the museum's former president, has helped develop museums around the world. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Museum board member Linda Side said Jacob was asked to resign. The museum couldn't justify his salary given the economic climate and the fact that the job he had undertaken was essentially complete, she said in a text message.

"The expertise that George had was in design, concept, execution, end of story," Side said in an interview. "The next step is not in his purview. He had completed the job that he was hired to do. The next step is about building the sustainability."

Jacob has worked on 55 museums in 11 countries over a career spanning nearly three decades.

When he heard about the aspirations of a small community to launch a world-class institution near Grande Prairie, he knew he wanted to be a part of it as a Canadian, he said.

Jacob still takes a great deal of pride in the museum. No museum in Canadian history has been designed and built so quickly, he said. He pointed out the numerous awards the museum has received since opening, and the fact that 120,000 patrons visited in the first year — twice as many people as had been anticipated.

But he said it's unlikely the museum would have that many people come through its doors year after year, noting that more than half of the first-year visitors were local residents.

"There has to be some sort of novelty associated with a second or repeat visitation," Jacob said.

Paying for new exhibits and fresh programming requires money, he said.

Operating budget shortfall

The annual cost of operating the dinosaur museum is $2 million.

The County of Grande Prairie has committed to providing $300,000 a year, and gave an extra $100,000 during the museum's inaugural year. For the first six months of the year, the museum's net income was about $300,000.

But even if admissions and other income amounted to $600,000 annually, the museum would still be about $1 million short of the money it needs to operate, budget documents indicate.

"Most museums do require adequate support to keep the doors open — and moreso when museums are located in thinly populated areas like Grande Prairie and Wembley," Jacob said.

Jacob said newer institutions like the dinosaur museum typically require an endowment or another stable source of funding to make it through the first few years.

He said there was talk about setting up an endowment for the dinosaur museum which would earn income that in turn could be used to pay the bills. But during his last days there, an endowment was not in place.
The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum was ranked seventh in Conde Nast Traveler Top Ten Museum Openings. ( Marilyn Grubb Chipabirdee Images)

Side said the museum board recognizes there are issues with long-term funding.

Board members hope the next president and CEO will help address them, she said, adding the board plans to replace Jacob in the coming months. Recruiting could start as early as next week.

Side also said it's difficult right now to find donors who are able to write cheques to support the museum. "We have had some very challenging times in this province."

Jacob prepared a business plan for the museum that went to Grande Prairie county council in early 2016. It proposed different ways of running the museum and included money-making suggestions, from renting out the building for events to offering consulting services.

Jacob eventually wanted to see an IMAX theatre, like the one at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, added to the dinosaur museum.

He said an IMAX theatre would generate money from ticket sales and the snack stand — and could be paid for by some combination of loans from the province, county and other nearby municipalities.

Big obstacles for small staff

Overcoming existing obstacles will be challenging for the remaining staff, Jacob said.  

The museum's website lists eight staff members, including manager of finance and administration Caitlin Powell and paleontologist Derek Larson, the assistant curator. Side said there are actually 12 or 13 people working at the facility.

Jacob said the master plan for the museum envisioned a staff of 20 or 21, and that he had 18 on his staff.

To create new exhibits and programs, Jacob said, the people at the helm of the museum and the people working under them need to have experience, and some understanding of paleontology.

The museum had some big plans for the future. Jacob said it had partnered on a digital project called Design-O-Saur that would allow people to create their own dinosaur online, specifying the region in which it would live and the type of food it would eat.

It was also working on a fossil walk and outdoor art installation of dinosaurs running toward the museum.

"The museum had some forward-thinking plans and ideas and if my expertise was required, I would have definitely stayed on to make sure those objectives are realized," Jacob said.

"It's something that I think this community should be very proud of and should continue to adequately support so that it continues to be the beacon of what collective resolve in smaller communities can produce.

"I sincerely wish that this institution continues to break new ground."