Whitehorse’s storied Beringia Interpretive Centre will reopen on June 17 after being closed for more than six months for renovations 1.5 million years in the making.
After years of planning, the centre shut its doors at the end of 2022 to update its main exhibition hall, which hadn’t seen significant tweaks since opening its doors 26 years ago.
“[The Great Hall] has undergone minimal changes since the Beringia Centre opened in 1997. And since then, our knowledge of the ice age and Beringia has expanded greatly,” says the centre’s manager Christie Grekul. “It was time to change the exhibits, modernize them, increase their interactivity and incorporate new fossils and Yukon stories.”
According to Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula, the centre’s new exhibits will include stunning artwork, multimedia presentations, new fossils and hands-on experiences.
“We’re going to trace the history of mammals in the Yukon — life in the Yukon — from about 1.5 million years ago up until the present day,” says Zazula.
“People will get a chance to see fossils collected in Old Crow of North America’s first mammoths’ teeth, showing when the first mammoths crossed the Bering Land Bridge. This was the first group of mammoths to move from Asia — and [the fossil is] from the Yukon, and that’s cool.”
In addition to the ancient mammoth teeth, fossils from giant camels and the mummified remains of a black-footed ferret will also be displayed, along with a jaw bone from a prehistoric species of giant beaver that Zazula is particularly fond of.
Some of the new fossils on display at the centre — like the mammoth teeth — are returning to the Yukon from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. These fossils were initially discovered in the 1960s and ’70s before the territory had its own paleontology program.
“Ice age paleontologists were working in the Yukon [in the ’60s and ’70s], but their home institution was the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. A lot of these iconic fossils […] like the 1.5-million-year-old mammoth teeth or the 1.5-million-year-old caribou bone, ended up being housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa [and] at the Museum of History in Ottawa,” says Grekul.
Zazula, who is intimately familiar with the collection of Yukon fossils in Ottawa, worked with the Beringia Centre and Yukon First Nations to create a list of the fossils they’d like to feature in the new exhibit. They then worked with colleagues and curators in Ottawa to have the desired specimens returned to the territory.
The returning fossilized remains will be complemented by a large, floor-to-ceiling mural featuring paintings of many of the now-extinct animals that once lived in the Yukon.
“You’ll get a chance to see the fossils of the giant camels that were collected on the Old Crow River in 1968, and then you’ll look up on the mural, and there are the camels,” says Zazula.
Seven short videos featuring some of the top Beringia-focused researchers are also among the centre’s refreshed offerings. The two-to-three-minute videos are integrated into the new exhibits, which take viewers back in time to experience the Yukon 1.5 million years ago.
Speaking as to what he hopes people will take away from the new exhibits at the Beringia Centre, Zazula says, “I want them to be proud that they’re from the Yukon and that this story is told in the Yukon by Yukoners. [It is] based on lots of hard work by people in the Yukon and contributions from First Nation communities.”
Grekul tells the News that the renos went to plan and were completed within the expected time frame.
“The process took about as long as I expected, maybe a little bit longer. Of course, you always want to get it done as fast as possible,” says Grekul.
“But honestly, in the big picture, we were pretty much on track.”
According to Grekul and Zazula, while this year’s upgrades were the largest in scale since the centre first opened its doors, smaller — but still significant — changes have been made over the years to increase the relevance of the centre’s content and showcase recent discoveries.
In 2019, Beringia Centre staff developed a 17-minute educational film to share with visitors in the facility’s 200-seat theatre, replacing a 25-year-old film about Beringia that was previously screened there.
In 2020, the mummified remains of a wolf pup discovered in 2016 — dubbed Zhùr — were put on display at the centre.
Attendees at this weekend’s grand opening festivities, which run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 17, can expect free food, face painting and other activities, as well as live music from singer-songwriter Remy Rodden.
Of course, visitors to the centre will also be able to check out the new exhibits and get up close and personal with some impressive fossils from the Yukon.
“We’re going to have our interpretive guides, we’re going to have Yukon paleontologists with us, so people will get the chance to learn right from the sources about the new exhibits,” says Grekul.
“There is lots to do for all ages — kids, families, adults, visitors, Yukoners and everyone in between.”
Following the grand reopening, the Beringia Centre will operate from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Summer programming at the facility is expected to run as usual and could include film screenings, special lectures, group tours and atlatl demonstrations.
Check the centre’s website for more information.
Contact Matthew Bossons at email@example.com