Dinosaur Journey roars back to life

Dinosaur fans give museum welcome boost in '09 visitation

Dinosaur Journey Paleontology Lab Supervisor Kay Fredette works on a dinosaur bone in the lab at the museum in Fruita. The museum was forced to slash its budget last year as administrators predicted a steep drop in visitation numbers. Improvements to the infrastructure and exhibits, however, helped drive interest in the museum, leading to a 3 percent rise in 2009 over 2008.

Rebecca Hunt-Foster, the paleontology collections manager for Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, displays a stegosaurus plate from a dig in a Rabbit Valley site.

One of the dinosaur exhibits at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita.

Fifteen months ago, the administrators in charge of Dinosaur Journey were as desperate and distraught as a Tyrannosaurus rex roaming a land filled only with ferns and cycads.

The mechanical components of the Fruita museum’s dinosaurs that allowed them to spit, hiss and growl were breaking down. The building’s stained, threadbare carpet was showing its 16-year-old age. The number of paid visitors slipped more than 5 percent from 43,600 in 2007 to 41,200 in 2008, as the recession choked off discretionary spending.

Officials slashed the museum’s budget, predicting a 25 percent plummet in visitation in 2009 compared to 2008.

“It was a major impact for us, but we felt like we had to do it in order to build a responsible budget,” said Mike Perry, executive director of the Museum of Western Colorado, which operates Dinosaur Journey.

But then a few triceratops moved in.

Dinosaur Journey cobbled together grants and contributions from a number of sources to repair the museum’s infrastructure and exhibits. The improvements helped spur local and regional residents to rediscover — or perhaps find for the first time — a source of education and entertainment. Rather than free-falling, traffic at the museum increased more than 3 percent to 42,600 visitors in 2009.

The museum will top off its rebound next month by unveiling a new exhibit on Fruitadens haagarorum, the smallest plant-eating dinosaur ever unearthed. Dinosaur Journey will be the first museum to show off Fruitadens.

“It has been a good year,” Perry said. “We’ve been able to accomplish a lot of good out here, and with the announcement of the Fruitadens exhibit, it puts us on the map as having a top-quality program.”

It wasn’t long ago that the program was in disrepair. The robotic brains of some of the dinosaurs were breaking down, and the company that installed the dinosaurs years ago went out of business. The museum was able to find a company in Montrose that could acquire the necessary parts.

Museum staff then began seeking and acquiring funding. A $16,000 grant from the Grand Junction Lions Club paid for the new robotic components and a fresh coat of interior paint. The city of Fruita allocated $12,000 for new carpet in all of the public areas of the museum. A $5,000 grant from ConocoPhillips replaced the exhibit labels and label stands.

Perry said the museum replaced the background sets for some of the displays and refurbished the popular earthquake exhibit.

As museum officials completed the improvements and saw their numbers rebound, they noticed a shift in the demographics of visitors. For years, 60 to 70 percent of Dinosaur Journey’s clientele was from outside Colorado and eastern Utah. Recently, however, the numbers flipped, and Perry estimates 60 percent who now visit live in the region.

“All of us are probably looking more toward what we can do in our own backyard that we haven’t done or that we’ve overlooked in the past,” he said.

Those who show up at the museum on Feb. 10 will get a look at a replica of a dinosaur that Curator of Paleontology John Foster said looks like “a small chicken with a really long tail.”

George Callison, then among a group of paleontologists from California State University Long Beach, found a series of bones from Fruitadens in the Fruita Paleontological Area in 1976. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has since served as the repository of those fossils, which include bones from a leg, foot, back, neck, pelvis and tail, as well as the upper and lower jaw.

Dinosaur Journey was able to make a trade with the Natural History Museum, agreeing to give it casts of other dinosaur fossils on display at Dinosaur Journey in exchange for a cast of Fruitadens’ lower jaw and a three-dimensional, reconstructed model of Fruitadens.

The exhibit will feature the model, photographs taken at the time Fruitadens was found and several placards explaining more about the dinosaur and the discovery. Callison will attend the unveiling.

“Hopefully people will come away not only with a sense of wonderment about this little tiny dinosaur, but knowing that we have so much around us and that so much of what science knows about dinosaurs has been found right here in our own backyard,” Perry said.


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