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Before too long, Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Richard M. Ivey curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), hopes names of fossils like Tiktaalik, Fractofusus and Anomalocaris will roll off young visitors’ tongues as easily as those of their favourite dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Triceratops.

Hundreds of specimens from the ROM’s early life collections – one of the world’s largest and most significant representing close to 3.5 billion years of time, from the origin of life itself to the origin of dinosaurs and mammals about 200 million years ago – will be showcased in the new 10,000-square-foot Willner Madge Dawn of Life Gallery on the museum’s second level.

The new gallery will connect the ROM’s natural history collections by bridging the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures and the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs.

While the Dawn of Life Gallery has been anticipated for some time, a recent $5-million gift from Toronto philanthropist and ROM governor Jeff Willner is enabling the project to move ahead, and plans are underway to create interactive displays using the latest multimedia technology to give visitors an immersive experience as they look back in time.

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Conceptual renderings of the future Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life

“Jeff Willner and other donors like the Ivey family, the Salamander Foundation and Elinor Ratcliffe recognize the importance of this story, the narrative of early life on Earth. They understand that with their transformational philanthropy they are making a difference both in the ROM and in the world,” says Josh Basseches, ROM director and CEO.

Ms. Ratcliffe first became intrigued with the concept of the gallery when she discovered that Mistaken Point, a UNESCO World Heritage site in her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, is one of four major Canadian sites to be represented in the gallery. At 570 million years, Mistaken Point preserves the first large and complex multicellular organisms and is the world’s oldest known Ediacaran fossil beds.

“I went to the ROM to meet with Dr. Caron, intending to tour all the galleries to see the context of the Dawn of Life Gallery. But I was so fascinated by his stories about the fossils and seeing the 3-D images that I didn’t get any further,” she says. After going home and doing some research, she followed up the visit with a donation to help make the gallery a reality.

Canada has a very rich geological history, and Dr. Caron says much of the story of early life on Earth will be told thanks to fossils found in Canada.

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Archaeocrinus maraensis, found at Lake Simcoe, Ontario.

In addition to Mistaken Point, the gallery will feature fossils from three other Canadian UNESCO World Heritage sites: the 508-million-year-old Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks’ Burgess Shale in British Columbia yields one of the oldest and best-preserved marine animal communities on our planet dating back to the Cambrian period, the 375-million-year-old Miguasha National Park site in Quebec is the most diverse fossil fish locality in the world during the Devonian period, and the 320-million-year-old Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia is an area that contains the world’s best example of a Carboniferous coal swamp, with rare remains of the earliest land-dwelling, egg-laying reptiles.

This is a story for all people, told from a uniquely Canadian perspective. It’s going to be an amazing journey, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

Jeff Willner, Toronto philanthropist and ROM governor

Dr. Caron, who studies the origin of animals, is particularly excited by the prospect of seeing many Burgess Shale fossils on exhibit for the first time in this new gallery, many of which he collected and published with the rest of his team.

The ROM holds the world’s largest and most extensive collection of Burgess Shale fossils (about 150,000 specimens) on behalf of Parks Canada, and most specimens selected for this new gallery, including the Burgess Shale, have never been seen by the public.

Dr. Caron will continue his research trips to the Burgess Shale and, along with other scientific studies in paleontology that advance our understanding of early life, the gallery will be continuously updated with new information and specimens.

While the gallery will be a dream come true for Dr. Caron, he believes it will inspire others to dream too.

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Fractofusus misrai, found at Mistaken Point in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It will be like a time machine; visitors will travel through time,” he says, adding that this new gallery will put the other ROM fossil galleries, including the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs, into a broader evolutionary perspective.

“The story of life on Earth is a long one – I think it’s going to be a vehicle for dreams. After people have seen the creatures, the myriad forms we are going to display and the changes that have happened on Earth over time, I’m pretty sure they’re going to dream about it. People will see the world in a new light,” says Dr. Caron.

Mr. Basseches says in addition to its presence in Toronto, ROM experts carry out research across the country and around the world. “What we are aspiring to do is something crucial for the people of Canada, but also to break new ground in how the story of early life is told for a global audience and a global research community,” he adds.

“This is a story for all people, told from a uniquely Canadian perspective,” says Mr. Willner. “It’s going to be an amazing journey, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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