Galleries filled with dinosaur skeletons and life-size replicas. A cove crawling with land and sea creatures. A sprawling veranda overlooking a dinosaur park where visitors can dig for fossils, and a journey into a virtual reality world of the Cretaceous era, complete with heat, wind, and vibrations.
Shovels went into the dirt Saturday to formally launch construction of Rowan University’s Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park Museum, a long-awaited, $73 million project that school officials and business leaders say will make Gloucester County a world-class destination for students and tourists.
The 44,000-square-foot museum in Mantua will overlook the 65-acre Edelman Fossil Park, a quarry that is a trove of vertebrae, teeth, and other remnants of prehistoric creatures that once swam through the sea where South Jersey’s land is now.
“South Jersey, and the university, will be transformed forever,” said Ken Lacovara, dean of Rowan’s school of the earth and environment and director of the park, speaking to volunteers, local leaders, and representatives of Rowan who gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking.
The project is funded in part by a $25 million donation from Jean and Ric Edelman, the husband-and-wife founders of a financial planning firm. The couple have given many millions to Rowan, their alma mater, including $1 million to support the university’s planetarium.
The museum, which is planned to open in May 2023, will feature fossils found on the East Coast, including from nearby in South Jersey. Much of what has been found in the park is from marine creatures like sea turtles, sharks, and crocodiles, but occasional remains from dinosaurs who died and floated out to sea have also turned up.
Dinosaurs are just the hook, said Lacovara. The museum will draw connections between the past and future by exploring the last days of the dinosaurs, as well as climate change.
“We’re using the ancient past to contextualize the present,” Lacovara said.
In the works since 2016, the project grew more ambitious over time. And project developers now hope it will become a major economic engine for the region, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors a year from all over the world.
The complex, which will include trails, a playground, an event space, theater, and a virtual reality chamber where people will wear goggles and vests to experience a 15-minute visit to the dinosaur age, was designed as a multiday experience.
“You’re going to linger longer, you’re going to come back often, and that means you’re going to spend money,” Ric Edelman said.
Designers said the museum will use solar and geothermal energy, and will be the state’s largest zero net carbon building. Edelman said he insisted on a 2,000-square-foot gift shop to help keep the museum economically sustainable as well.
The exhibits will expose visitors to a range of sciences unrelated to dinosaurs, Edelman said, which will in turn encourage careers in science and mathematics. School groups, which now must join a long waiting list to tour the excavation site, will be able to visit daily.
“The key for getting kids interested in science is to get them young, when their curiosity is at a maximum,” he said. “And to make it fun.”