Axolotls, artifacts, and a lot of Mr. PG: Prince George museum re-opens with new look

The Gaia Gallery greets visitors with a massive living wall of more than 1,500 plants alongside dinosaur skeletons. (Nicole Oud/CBC - image credit)
The Gaia Gallery greets visitors with a massive living wall of more than 1,500 plants alongside dinosaur skeletons. (Nicole Oud/CBC - image credit)

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, one of Prince George's top cultural attractions is re-opening.

The Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre, located near the banks of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, has long held many roles: it's a licensed railway operating a 110-year-old steam train, a zoo holding a collection of reptiles and fish, and a space where the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation holds important cultural artifacts, including remains exhumed from the park in which the museum sits.

And after being closed to the public for the past two-and-a-half years for a redesign, under the guidance of CEO Tracy Calogheros, the Exploration Place is re-opening on Saturday.

Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre
Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre

Calogheros says that when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close its doors, she and her staff took the opportunity to rethink the space, applying for grants to update their look to reflect their mission and core mandate.

The result is a newly renovated space that focuses on what she describes as the two most important issues facing both Prince George and Canada as whole: "True reconciliation with Indigenous nations and climate change."

'Climate change through a paleo lens'

The issue of climate change hits visitors as soon as they walk through the door, as the front gallery has been converted into a 20-foot tall, 90-foot wide living wall, showcasing over 1,500 plants sourced from the local community.

Dubbed the Gaia Gallery, this reception area also contains dinosaur skeletons along with fish tanks and axolotls, endangered amphibians made popular online due to their smile-shaped mouths and similarity to Pokémon.

Nicole Oud/CBC
Nicole Oud/CBC

The purpose of this area is to have visitors think about the fragility of life and the consequences of climate change, says Calogheros.

"It's climate change through a paleo lens."

On a similar note, visitors can purchase food from the museum's new teaching kitchen, which is focused on using locally-grown food which Calogheros says reduces their overall carbon footprint.

"That's our goal, is to always do everything through [this] lens," she said.

Lheidli T'enneh as full partners

The re-opening also marks an expansion of the museum's partnership with the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

The Governor General-award winning exhibit Hodul'eh-a: A Place of Learning is ongoing, showcasing the history of the Dakelh people in the region, and there are plans to bring on displays showcasing more recent history, such as a memorial to the victims of residential schools that was placed on the steps of city hall in 2021.

Elected Lheidil T'enneh Chief Dolleen Logan says the relationship that's been built is an important example of what true reconciliation can look like.

"The museum, they take care of us," she said. "We're all in this together."

Mr. PG and Champ the Horse

James Doyle/Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre
James Doyle/Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre

While the museum doesn't shy away from tough topics, it also offers space for fun and nostalgia.

A once-temporary exhibit showcasing the many iterations of the city's wooden lumberjack mascot, Mr. PG, is now permanent, and the museum has acquired both the original and a replica of Champ — a vintage mechanical horse that for generations entertained children in the Northern Hardware, an iconic family-run business that closed in 2020.

After more than two years of work, Calogheros says she is eager to see how the community responds to the changes.

"We're just so excited to welcome everyone back."

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC