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Galleries open at expanded N.D. Heritage Center

Michael Chrest of Lincoln, N.D., takes a picture of his 4-year-old son, Jack, posing in front of a xiphactinus, a prehistoric predatory fish, on Monday in the Adaptation Gallery of the newly expanded and renovated North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — At 90 years old, Myron Pryor has a bit of history under his belt. He talks about how he found rings of stones marking where American Indian tepees once stood on his cattle ranch near the small town of Pingree in Stutsman County.

But age didn’t dull his appreciation for the fossils, artifacts and exhibits on public display for the first time Monday at the newly expanded and renovated North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

“It’s something you don’t see every day. How they found all this stuff is a miracle,” said Pryor, who traveled with his wife, Gert, and two busloads of people from Jamestown for Monday’s soft opening of the museum.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple and first lady Betsy Dalrymple helped lead the tour of the museum’s first two completed galleries. The Adaptation Gallery covers North Dakota’s geology and prehistoric life from 600 million years ago to 13,000 years ago, while the Innovation Gallery uses artwork and more than 1,000 artifacts to tell the story of the state’s first peoples through the 1860s.

“Really, it’s an historic day,” Gov. Dalrymple said. “It’s a day that we will look back on many, many decades from now and people will say, ‘That’s unbelievable that they got that done.’”

Dalrymple recalled that when State Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud first told him he needed $50 million for the project, “I remember thinking, ‘With this Legislature, this is going to be a challenge to say the least.’”

The 2009 Legislature ultimately supported the project, appropriating $39.7 million from state funds with the requirement that $12 million come from private sources. The Historical Society Foundation has obtained pledges for more than $12 million.

“And here we are today, and am I ever glad that we did it,” Dalrymple said.

The 97,000-square-foot expansion essentially doubled the size of the facility and increased the exhibit space from 28,000 square feet to more than 47,000 square feet.

State Paleontologist John Hoganson said the Adaptation Gallery displays about 10 times as many fossils and fossil casts as the former Heritage Center, including a 24-foot-long swimming reptile called plioplatecarpus that was collected near Cooperstown and now hangs from the ceiling to greet visitors as they enter.

“We’ve been working at this for many years,” he said, noting the state’s fossil collection was created by state law in 1989. “We’ve finally gotten to the point where we’re able to display a lot of what we have in the collection.”

Dalrymple called the fossil display “the best I’ve ever seen.” He said the variety includes fossils that one would expect to see in a dinosaur exhibit, such as T-Rex and triceratops, “but they’ve also got some amazing monsters and fish that you don’t normally see and that are truly unique to North Dakota.

“These are our own discoveries that we have found in the last couple of decades. So it’s a fantastic exhibit. I’d put it up against anything that’s out there,” he said.

Construction began in March 2011 and was originally expected to wrap up by January 2013, but the project encountered delays related to worker shortages, the availability of construction materials and other factors.

“All good things take time, and we’re finally getting to the end of it, and we’re going to celebrate that now and then also in November,” Paaverud said, referring to the Nov. 2 grand opening that will also feature the two remaining galleries and coincide with the state’s 125th anniversary of statehood.

Dalrymple said he believes the expanded museum will pique people’s curiosity and desire to go out and learn more about North Dakota.

“We have world class collections here, and it really is a world-class facility. I think it’s going to be a great centerpiece for our state,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.