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“Modern Design Meets Ancient Past”

Rowan University’s Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Kenneth Lacovara

A fossil park and active research site in Mantua Township is the home of  a soon-to-open museum that will use cutting-edge technology to offer visitors an unsparingly authentic glimpse into the distant past.

Rowan University’s Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum will open this year in “early summer,” says its founding director, Kenneth Lacovara, Ph.D. Asked what he most wants the public to know about the museum, Lacovara promises, “It’s not like any other place in the world,” and visitors are in for an experience “like no other!”

Rendering of an aerial view of the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum. (Courtesy of Ennead Architects: KSS and Earthscape)

Rowan University alumni Jean & Ric Edelman, the museum’s benefactors. (Courtesy of Rowan University)

This is a bold statement, but the list of planned exhibits, which will occupy 44,000 square feet of museum space on two floors, is vast and impressive. Among the attractions that will be offered throughout the museum’s interior, as well as on its grounds, are a Cretaceous Garden that features descendants of the mid-Atlantic’s ancient flora; dioramas of prehistoric scenes; and paleo sculptures by world-renowned prehistoric artist Gary Staab, winner of numerous National Geographic Lanzendorf Paleoart Awards. In tandem with these creations, free-roaming virtual reality, a live animal center, a high-touch Discovery Forest, a paleontology-themed playground, and a 138-seat theater promise to make visitors’ immersion in the past both thorough and vivid.

Rowan alumni Jean and Ric Edelman, for whom the fossil park and museum are named, pledged $25 million to expand and preserve the fossil park. A page on the university’s website devoted to the benefactors notes that the “Edelmans’ gift is the largest from alumni in Rowan’s history. It is the second largest gift to the institution to date.” A previous Edelman gift supported Rowan’s planetarium, which also bears their name, and they also have established a program that allows elementary schools to bring students to the planetarium.

Throughout its inception there has been an emphasis on making the museum environmentally friendly — in both its construction and the broader theme of its exhibits. Describing it as “modern design meets ancient past,” its website underlines a mission to create “gathering spaces to build community around the themes of exploration, discovery, and responsible stewardship of our planet.”

Rendering of the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum’s interior. (Courtesy of Ennead Architects: KSS and Earthscape)

“The Last Moments of the Dinosaur World”

The museum’s website promises, “Set into a 65-acre landscape, the museum will perch above the quarry where, within its muddy depths, 66-million-year-old marine and terrestrial fossils record the last moments of the dinosaur world.”

Asked what a visitor to the museum would see if one could travel back in time to those final moments, Lacovara observes, “The deposits at the bottom of the quarry are 66 million years old. At that time, sea level was very high — and very warm. New Jersey was mostly under water, and all of South Jersey was under water. So, the coastline would be maybe 25 miles across the Delaware River.”

“If you were in the ocean, and stuck your head up, you would actually see the snowcap Appalachians,” he continues, noting that “at the time, the Appalachians were as tall as the Himalayas — at the fossil park you would be under about 70 feet marine water.” The creatures one might encounter include “a giant Mosasaurus, the all-time apex-predator of the ocean; lots of different species of sharks; bony fish; and lots of other creatures. It would be a dangerous place.”

Development: “A Project of Massive Complexity”

A native of South Jersey, Lacovara is also the founding dean of Rowan’s School of Earth & Environment. In Patagonia he discovered Dreadnoughtus schrani, which Smithsonian Magazine notes “belongs to a group of dinosaurs called the titanosaurs, the largest dinosaurs (in fact the largest terrestrial animals) that science has uncovered. It was a herbivore, and lived in what is now South America around 77 million years ago.”

A fellow of the Explorers Club, Lacovara is the author of Why Dinosaurs Matter (Simon & Schuster, 2017), which won a 2018 Nautilus Book Award. Arguably, his work in the use of technology, such as 3D printing and computer modeling, to facilitate the study of dinosaurs prefigures the museum’s embrace of virtual reality.

Lacovara says that he began the project of constructing a museum on the fossil park “14 years ago, after I realized that we had a fossil site on the property that was unique in the world. It’s really the best window into the last moments of the dinosaurs that exists on the planet.”

He adds, “Once I understood the significance of the site, then I knew that I had to save it. The mining company [that had been at the site] was going out of business, and there was a close-out plan to fill in the quarry and build some big-box stores there. I first teamed up with Mantua Township and worked that way for a few years, and I joined Rowan University to finally get the job done.”

Asked how his move to Rowan University came about, Lacovara explains, “I had known the president of Rowan, Ali Houshmand, from when he was provost at Drexel University (Lacovara was a professor at Drexel for 18 years.). Ali called me up one day, and asked if I would come over and have breakfast with him.”

He continues, “We began dreaming together. We dreamt of a School of Earth and Environment on campus, and a fossil park and museum at our dig site. Right there at breakfast, we decided to do it. Now, those things are reality!”

The museum was designed by global architect Thomas Wong of Ennead, which an article published by Rowan University’s website describes as “one of the most celebrated architecture firms in the world.” The organization has designed museums and performance centers around the world; included in its work for college campuses is Princeton University’s Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex, now under construction.

Asked about the inherent challenges in constructing the museum, Lacovara admits, “It’s a project of a massive complexity. Until recently, the fossil park staff has only been a couple of people. So, we have all had to wear many, many hats.” He elaborates, “I’ve been involved in really every aspect of the museum design; I’ve been writing all of the text rails for the museum; I have conceptualized all of the displays; I’ve been involved in all the aspects of architecture.”

“Now, finally, we’re at a position — because we’re getting close to opening — where we are adding staff,” Lacovara continues. “That’s both wonderful and strange for us, because we’ve been so few for so long — outside of our consultants, two or three of us for the entire time.”

He says, “the biggest challenge has been the immense volume of things that have to happen to build the museum from scratch — and the immense complexity of building a museum from scratch.”

Sustainability: “No Fossil Fuels in the Fossil Park”

“Featuring geothermal, water-source heat pump heating and cooling systems, as well as a planned photovoltaic solar field, the museum will be New Jersey’s largest net zero facility,” notes its website. “This means that 100 percent of the energy used by the museum will come from a combination of green energy available in New Jersey’s power grid and renewable energy produced on site. No fossil fuels will be combusted for museum operations and no greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere. In addition, the surrounding grounds will restore plant and animal habitat and other key landscape features.”

When asked about this emphasis on eco-friendly construction, Lacovara says, “One of the first things I said to the architects was ‘no fossil fuels at the fossil park!’ The museum is designed with sustainability in mind.”

“The ground floor of the museum is half subterranean. The walls of the museum are incredibly thick, and super well-insulated,” Lacovara elaborates. “The walls are made of reduced carbon concrete; we achieved that by adding industrial slag in the mix. The building is clad in sustainably grown accoya wood. We have 72 250-foot-deep geothermal wells, and we will (by opening, or shortly after) have a large solar array. All those features will combine to make the museum New Jersey’s largest net zero building.”

Museum Research Team. (Courtesy of Rowan University)

“A Multi-Day Experience”

Of the paleo sculptures that Gary Staab created for the museum, Lacovara says, “We are very fortunate to have the world’s best paleoartist creating our sculptures. He’s crafting 52 creatures for us — full size, all fleshed-out creatures — in immersive dioramas, in spaces that have immersive sound and immersive lighting. So, it’s going to be like a trip back to the Cretaceous Period.”

He emphasizes, “We’re also portraying each of these ancient creatures as authentic beings. Some of them have injuries and pathologies — you get glimpses of their back stories. We want people to know that dinosaurs, and other extinct creatures, were real — authentic. They had challenges, triumphs, and tragedies, just like we do. We’re trying to portray the gritty side of dinosaurs in the exhibits.”

Of the museum’s virtual reality (VR) component, Lacovara says, “It will be a free-roaming group VR experience. I think very few people have experienced free-roaming VR, but it really puts you in the setting. It’s not only a great experience, but it creates an indelible memory. It seems like it’s something that has happened to you, in your life.”

The museum’s Critter Cove will feature a number of animals that are very much alive. Lacovara calls attention to a “200-gallon reef tank; we will have a pair of rat colonies connected by a tube across the ceiling; we’ll have a large freshwater tank; we’ll have a tank with an African sideneck turtle; we will have many smaller tanks, with South Jersey insects and amphibians; we will have a large white-throated monitor lizard; a large saltwater touch tank embedded in a rocky outcrop; and then we will have ambassador animals that we bring out onto the floor to show people.”

When this writer observes that the museum is an aquarium as well as a fossil park, Lacovara replies, “Well, I like to say we have a ‘live zoo’ and a ‘dead zoo!’”

Uniquely, the fossil park experience includes a “real fossil dig.” Lacovara explains that “prior to construction, we had been running our community dig. We have a lot of experience bringing the public into the quarry. We have our research layer (that records the last moments of the dinosaurs) that we manage and curate very carefully. But above that, we have layers where we let the public collect. Everyone who goes to the site and is not afraid to get their hands dirty, and tries a little bit, finds a 66-million-year-old fossil, which we let them take home. It’s a transformational experience, making that personal connection with the ancient past.”

Lacovara reflects on the importance of such an experience on inspiring future explorers. “We’ve seen it over and over — the fossil that a kid (or even a grown-up) finds for themselves becomes more important to them than all the dinosaurs in all the museums in the world because it’s their discovery — and it’s a real discovery.

“So now you have a kid there, with dirty hands, who has seen something that no human has ever seen before, and now knows something that no human has ever known before. They get the authenticity of that, and it really excites them. I think that’s a pathway to discovery and learning.”

Asked whether the museum is a culmination of his life’s work, Lacovara says, “I think that’s fair to say. I had to rely on lots of different skills that I have accumulated over my many years of being a scientist, being a professor, being a dean, running a business, being a parent — all of that comes into play in this. What’s next for me is I have to make sure that this museum is successful.”

He adds, “But we have lots of other projects in the offing — I would like to offer our museum visitors the chance to travel to remote locations on expeditions. I love public speaking, so I hope to bring the themes we are developing in the museum to a global audience.”

One of Lacovara’s goals is to launch a podcast from the fossil park, which he hopes could cultivate listener and visitor interest in “discovery.”

Lacovara hopes that the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum will become a “community-gathering place.” He says, “We know we’re going to get people visiting from all over the world. But we hope that our local residents turn it into their everyday gathering place — a place for fun, relaxation, learning, and discovery.”

For updates and further information about the museum, visit rowan.edu/fossils.

Artist rendering of a pair of Mosasaurus, the all-time apex-predator of the ocean 66 million years ago. (Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com)

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