“Nothing but a few cactuses, sage brush and boulders.”
Close to 30 years ago, Dr. David Baird hiked up to the top of the hill east of where the Royal Tyrrell Museum now sits. This same hill now has a wooden staircase and a viewing platform. Thousands climb that same hill every year to discover the badlands. For Dr. Baird: “Nothing but a few cactuses, sage brush and boulders." Before this, Dr. Baird was simply given a vision. He believed it was Dr. Bill Byrne, who was then assistant Deputy Minister of Culture, who called him up with this vision.
“A voice from Edmonton said ‘We would like some help in finding someone to come and build us, the Government of Alberta, a world class museum to be a tourist attraction for Southern Alberta. It is to be based on the fossil collection and fossil wonders to be found in the valley of the Red Deer River at Drumheller.’”
Dr. Baird had already accomplished more than most would in a lifetime, a career as an academic, with dozens of published works. He was also founding Director of the National Museum of Science and Technology. At first, he was apprehensive. The voice from Edmonton laid out its expectations. It told him the government already had $30 million set aside for the project, it had a site picked out, and they would leave him alone to lead the project.
“I said 'Better come and have a look,'” he chuckles.
“On January 2, 1982, I landed in Drumheller to stay five years. It was the happiest five years I ever spent in my whole 70 years of professional experience,” said Baird, who is now 90. “I was doing something where I could let my imagination run riot.”
The fact that he was given a free hand to create the museum was also a blessing for Baird.
“For example, within two weeks I realized the terms of reference, ‘to build a world class museum dedicated to the fossil heritage of Alberta’ was not really good enough. I wanted a broader title. So I asked him (Byrne) to go back to the government to change it to read ‘A celebration of three thousand million years on earth, with special but not exclusive reference to Alberta.’ … It means the whole beautiful life on Earth from three thousand million years ago, all the way to the present time, and furthermore I could put mankind at the end of the story, where he actually belongs in the story, and wonder about his future. Within two weeks he came back and the government said yes; I was just on seventh heaven, and I wrote the story of what I thought the museum should be.”
His relationship with the architect was just as comfortable as with the government. He met up with chief architect Doug Craig and gave him a list of 27 architectural requirements of the facility. He then left Craig to design the building. He still has this list.
While many of these requirements were simple, they had purpose, and still shape the museum today. One of the requirements was that the building harmonizes with the look of the badlands so it is part of a landscape. Another is routing the driveway to go past the front of the building, simply so people could easily locate the entrance. Another was having space for visitors’ eyes to adjust to entering a building.
“I said the sunlight on the bald old prairie in Drumheller is pretty bright, inside a museum the lighting is controlled. So you are going to step from the bright sunlight into the dark museum,” he said. “Instead of spending your first 20 minutes with your eyes adjusting to the gloom of the museum, I would like 20 or 30 feet of gradually reducing light - increasing darkness to the front door.
“He came up with a brilliant solution. It is his, it is Craig’s,” said Baird.
Another vision of the museum Baird carried was that the museum be known for having a dramatic view, and he began imagining the great dinosaur hall. His vision came to fruition and he remembers introducing it to the Premier of Alberta on opening night.
“I took the whole party into the darkened museum, up the winding stairs to the balcony that overlooks Dinosaur Hall, which was in total darkness. And I said, ‘And now Mister Premier, you wanted me to give you a world class museum, I want to present to you one of the greatest museum views in the world.’ I pushed the button and somewhere downstairs a bell rang, and a guy threw a couple knife switches and on came the lights. Well, it was the most incredible silence you ever heard.”
There were skeptics at the beginning. He recalls there being curiosity about the project in Calgary, and he recalls being invited to a group to give an after-dinner talk on the museum. He recalls telling the audience he was forecasting 400,000 visitors a year.
“I was almost laughed out of court. They were polite, but they didn’t believe it for a second,” he said.
He is vindicated that in the 25th year, the museum welcomed its 10 millionth visitor.
Along with the building of the museum came filling it with interesting exhibits and specimens. He said while there had been fossil collecting for years in Alberta, rather than relying on what they had, he wanted fossils to fit into the narrative. He also insisted on high quality work. Specimens came from all over; some were unearthed, others came from the provincial museum, the Geological Survey of Alberta and some from private collections and even people’s basements.
A group of scientists, designers, technicians, artisans and craftsmen toiled away building the exhibits. Like he worked with the architects, he had the same working relationship as he did with the designers. He laid out what was required, and he let them do their job.
“It was a busy four or five years, but it was wonderful, we were building a world class museum, we had lots of money and an enthusiastic government,” he said, adding it was not uncommon for politicians and bureaucrats who were “passing through” to come and assess the progress.
He fondly remembers many of the people he worked with and is pleased that some are still with the museum, including Dr. Don Brinkman and Dr. Dennis Braman. He also has fond memories of working side by side with Dr. Bruce Naylor, who became the director of the Tyrrell in 1992.
“He was a good friend and a much admired person in my view, and he has done a superb job,” said Baird.
He also has bouquets for the modern staff at the museum. When he parted ways with the museum, his advice was to keep the exhibits fresh, and the museum’s success proved they have worked hard to continue a tradition of excellence.
He has nothing but good memories of his time in Drumheller.
“I was a director of a geological survey, I was chair of two or three university departments of geology, and lived all over Canada, all the way from St. John’s Newfoundland to Drumheller, but the most interesting and productive five years was right there in Drumheller,” he said.
“If you think I am proud, you are right.”