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old photograph of visitors in the dinosaur hall

About the Museum

Our History


The Royal Alberta Museum opened to the public on December 6, 1967 under its original name - The Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta. This achievement was the result of a partnership between the federal government's Confederation Memorial Centennial Program and the Government of Alberta. Planning had begun in the 1950s, but a museum professional was not hired to guide the project until 1962. In 1964, federal funding and matching provincial funds were announced. Raymond O. Harrison, an Australian, was hired and given $5M and three years to find a site, hire staff, build collections, construct a museum and prepare exhibits to fill 4,000 square metres.

The Honourable Judy LaMarsh, Secretary of State in the Pearson government, presided at the opening ceremony with The Honourable Ernest C. Manning, Premier, Province of Alberta and The Honourable Dr J. W. Grant MacEwan, Lieutenant Governor, Province of Alberta.

On the museum's opening day, visitors were introduced to three main floor galleries: Fur Trade, Native Peoples of Alberta, and early photographs of Aboriginal people taken by Ernest Brown and Harry Pollard. Eleven mammals were mounted in the habitat section and several scale models of future dioramas were prepared. Second-floor galleries focused on Agriculture, Pioneer Life and Industry and Commerce. Faced with Tyndall Stone from Manitoba and incorporating native petroglyph designs in its façade, the building is an icon of a specific period in Alberta architecture.

John Weaver created two heroic-sized sculpture groups to introduce the two curatorial wings of the museum - Human History and Natural History: The Stake, depicting a pioneer family locating the corner stake of their new homestead and The Pronghorns, an introduction to the province's wildlife.

The museum expanded continuously through the late 1960s and 1970s, adding a range of curatorial programs and staff. A new Conservative government and a surging Alberta economy increased revenue spending on government projects. This benefited the development of the museum's superb habitat dioramas. Major exhibits were added to the museum at the rate of about one a year until 1979.

In 1969, the museum was instrumental in establishing the museum Advisory Program that later became Alberta museums Association, an association that fosters the development of museums in Alberta. A Travelling Exhibits Program was established at the museum to prepare exhibits to travel locally, provincially and nationally. This program was a highly fertile training ground for museum artists and designers. A highlight of the Travelling Exhibits Program was the acquisition of a series of tractor-trailers that were outfitted to serve as a museum caravan, bringing exhibits to communities throughout the province for more than 10 years.

The museum created and toured many fine presentations, including:

  • Australian Aboriginal Art
  • Japanese Kites
  • Log Cabin Construction
  • Highlights in the Search for Ancient Life
  • Bird Flight
  • Mammals of Alberta
  • Reefs

The Friends of Royal Alberta Museum Society was formed in 1982. This active society of valuable volunteers is involved in  fundraising, hosting events, collections acquisitions, assisting with public and school programs, and the Indigenous Student Museum Internship (ISMI) program.

Throughout the 1980s, the museum fulfilled a vital role in the dissemination of information about Alberta through guides, interpretive programs and curatorial research that appeared in professional journals, Occasional Papers and Special Publications. As well, the museum began creating computer data records for as many collections as possible. The Natural History research collections became recognized as among the best curated in the country.

Renovation planning became the focus of the mid-1980s as the museum sought to display a greater proportion of its collections and address an increasingly competitive marketplace. The city of Edmonton itself was changing - the creation of major shopping centres and the introduction of personal computers, multiplex theatres and video increased the competition for the public's discretionary time. Add to this a decline in the economy and government spending. Change was most definitely "in the air."

With the introduction of paid admission in 1990, the museum's management team decided upon a radical shift in programming with a concerted effort to increase its audience. The ground floor Indian Gallery was dismantled to create a large feature exhibition space. Over the next dozen years (from 1989 to 2001), the museum embarked on an ambitious program of feature exhibitions - some travelling from other museums across North America, others entailing collaborative ventures coordinated by the museum - that brought extraordinary collections from across North America, Europe and Asia. In all, more than 175 exhibitions were presented.

An entrepreneurial spirit infused the organization. Projects on a scale never before attempted could now be imagined as the museum sought a host of corporate and media partners to make them possible.

Highlights of the touring exhibitions presented included:

  • Prehistoric Gigantics [1990]
  • Whales! Bigger than Dinosaurs [1992]
  • Sharks: Fact and Fantasy [1993]
  • Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats [1994]
  • Carnosaurs! [1995]
  • Bugworld [1996]
  • Genghis Khan
  • Syria - Land of Civilizations [2001]
  • International Wildlife Photographer of the Year [2003]

Major feature exhibition projects created by the museum included:

  • The Scriver Blackfoot Collection [1990]
  • Treasures: What Earth and Hand Have Made [1991]
  • Live! The Bug Room [1992]
  • Beartown: Return of the Teddy [1993]
  • The Poster War [1993]
  • Hokkaido Art/Ainu Art and Life [1994]
  • From Child to Champ - the Kurt Browning Story [1996]
  • Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment [2000]
  • Edouard Cortés [2001]
  • Ancient Rome [2002]

During this heady time, the museum also initiated a progression of permanent gallery renewals:

  • Evolution and Adaptation [1991]
  • The Beauty and Science of Birds [1992]
  • Our Green World [1992]
  • Treasures of the Earth [1993]
  • The Bug Room [1993]
  • Reading the Rocks [1994]
  • Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture [1997]
  • Wild Alberta [2003]

Behind-the-scenes, the museum's curatorial section continued to grow and evolve from Human History and Natural History into 13 separate programs of study including: Archaeology, Botany, Cultural Studies, Indigenous Studies, Geology, Ichthyology, Invertebrate Zoology, Mammalogy, Military and Government History, Ornithology, Quaternary Environments, Quaternary Palaeontology and Western Canadian History. In addition to research and collecting, curators play a significant educational role at the museum through university partnerships, lectures and publications. Some key publications include:

  • Climate and Landscape of the Last 2000 Years in Alberta, in Archaeology in Alberta: A View from the New Millennium [2003]
  • A Traveller's Guide to Geological Wonders in Alberta [1998]
  • Federation of Alberta Naturalists Field Guide to Alberta Birds [1998]
  • Alberta Butterflies [1995]
  • Alberta Mammals: An Atlas and Guide [1993]

The museum's education programs continue to increase in number and popularity, serving 60,000 school children each year. In 2001, the museum opened Museum School offering students a full week of interdisciplinary study on-site. After only three years' operation, Museum School is fully booked and carries a lengthy waiting list of interested classes.

The museum also provides distance learning opportunities through a wide range of virtual exhibitions and publications hosted on its website such as Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries and Butterflies North and South.

The museum has always been a popular venue for cultural performances, lectures, films, concerts, award ceremonies, society meetings, business meetings, receptions and weddings. By the late 1990s, more than 200 community groups each year were using the museum building for their events.

To mark the new millennium, the museum drew on collections at home and from museums around the world to create an ambitious series of feature exhibitions that celebrated human culture:

  • Rise of the Black Dragon [1999]
  • The Mystical Arts of Tibet [1999]
  • Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries [2000]
  • Sixties [2001]