Fossil Butte National Monument plans for new exhibits

Fossil Butte National Monument may showcase ancient geologic history, but the visitors center is looking to the future.

The monument will soon create new exhibits and improve old ones, thanks to the latest round of federal grants.

Fossil Butte’s Arvid Aase said the exhibits will be created using National Park Service funds from the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act, which functions with national park entrance fees.

“Even though we don’t charge a fee here (at Fossil Butte), we can compete for those funds, and we’ve been successful in that,” Aase said. 

Fossil Butte hosted a planning meeting on Thursday, March 7, and Friday, March 8, to plan the new exhibits.

Present at the meeting were current and retired Fossil Butte staff, local fossil quarriers, the Kemmerer city administrator, a representative from the state lodging tax board, and the exhibit project contractors from Missouri.

Aase said the meeting’s purpose was to create more compelling, interactive exhibits at the visitor’s center with the funds.

“You get people to stay longer when you have things to do, not just see. I could see these exhibits doubling our visitor time from around 30 to 45 minutes to maybe even 1 ½  to 2 hours.”

The group worked for two days to brainstorm ideas for new and improved exhibits. The finished product was a prioritized list of several exhibits that will be completed first, but also several ideas for small exhibits or minor changes. 

Aase has won the Freeman Tilden Award for excellence in interpretation for his creation of “Fishing the Layers of Time,” a community-wide scavenger hunt that sent locals and tourists searching for ancient fossils displayed in community businesses. It’s a project Kemmerer council members said they would be interested in reviving.

One idea produced at the planning session was the installation of 3-D models next to the fossil specimens at the visitors’ center.

“Another exhibit idea involved the visitor excavating through geological time,” Aase said. “It would be more meaningful than a map with topographic lines.”

“One idea was to have a new case with a large (over 6 foot long) fossil fish. That could be the first thing visitors see when they walk in the door, like ‘whoa, there it is!’” Aase said.

Aase said the monument will almost entirely redo the exhibit gallery in the back of the center.

“We want to create a portal through time, where visitors can find their way through ‘becoming a fossil,’” Aase said. “It would be an interactive path that people would want to go back through. We really thought about being more immersive and creating an exciting experience.”

Another plan is to create or update kiosks in the center that offer in-depth explorations on subjects that are not primarily covered in the larger exhibits, such as wildlife and flowers.

“We want to relocate and change the size of the video room,” Aase said. “We hardly ever need as many seats as are there. We can maximize that space to use for more exhibits that would be in movable cases.”

The project contractors had suggested an aquarium with live fish related to the ancient fish featured at Fossil Butte.

“We want a virtual aquarium instead, with the imaging reflected on the glass,” Aase said. “The fish would be swimming through the diorama, and you could see the ancient fish and modern relatives. It allows visitors to really choose what they want to see, and there’s more interpretive appeal there.”

Aase said that perhaps using a future round of federal funding, the monument could install an interactive fossil quarry. He discussed the role that FBNM plays in the tourism economy of Lincoln County.

“Our primary role is to exhibit and interpret scientific specimens,” Aase said. “But in doing that we want it to be memorable, and we want people to stop here and spread the word.

“It’s exciting to have people come in and say, ‘Where can you find these fossils in this area?’” Aase continued. “That’s when we can direct them to the local fossil quarries.  It’s an economic boost that is a side effect of exceptional exhibits.”

Aase said when the meeting began, the contractors were curious as to why it was necessary for a variety of community representatives to be present. At the conclusion of the meeting, Aase said the contractors appreciated the group.

“They had lots of imagination,” Aase said. “The quality of comments was great. Everyone stepped up and contributed. It was a great compliment to the level of talent we have in this community.”

Kemmerer city administrator Brian Muir attended the planning meeting and reported to the Kemmerer council at Monday’s meeting.

“It was a very creative process,” Muir said. “One big thing we had in mind was to think of who the customer was. We want to get people to come and stay longer. With Fossil Butte, I see an opportunity for economic development and coordinating  with local businesses.” 

Aase said the first round of prioritized projects is slated to be completed by June 2020.