Lisa Making is Executive Director at the world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada.
Lisa Making also features on the blooloop 50 Museum Influencer List, which shines a spotlight on those whose innovation and creativity are helping museums through this uniquely challenging time. She first spoke to blooloop six years ago, when she was Director of Exhibitions and Communications at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
“It was definitely an interesting time to take on this new role,” she says of her new role as Executive Director, which she has held since April 2020.
“But I’m grateful for the opportunity. Getting this museum re-opened was an interesting task, and I’m glad I got to be the one to do it, as someone who knows the institution as well as I do.”
Lisa Making and the Royal Tyrrell Museum
Lisa Making has been at the Royal Tyrrell for thirteen years. She is a textbook example of being able to progress within an organisation.
In her previous role at the museum, Making, whose background is in physical anthropology, was an innovator. She incorporated ground-breaking elements into exhibits and explored new organisational and structural approaches. This a technique she brought forward from her earlier position as Head of Strategic Initiatives.
Capitalising on the museum’s status as a research facility, she opened the museum’s doors to let visitors meet the scientists conducting that research. Making was also responsible for the institution’s integration of social media, something that is more than paying off now.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum has had a strong social media following for over a decade, something Making has been able to leverage during the COVID-19 crisis, engaging over 1,000,000 followers across the museum’s social media platforms during the lockdown.
“This is a spectacular museum to get to work in,” she says.
During the period, Lisa Making led the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s communication strategy, visitor attendance rose by 24%.
“When I first started at the museum 13 years ago, our average attendance was about 325 thousand visitors a year,” she says. “This a solid number when you consider that this museum is located an hour and a half outside of an urban centre.
“Over the next few years, though, the population in the province of Alberta grew exponentially, and yet our attendance wasn’t keeping up with that growth.”
“So we developed a strategy with our exhibits and our communications to ensure we were hitting the right targets, being more focused, looking at the tourism market, integrating ourselves with our tourism development agencies within the province, and aligning those partnerships more closely.
“Then, of course, Jurassic World came out. We had to learn how to leverage ourselves against the blockbuster movies, and make ourselves that destination.”
When she became Director of Exhibits and Communications in 2011, annual attendance was at around 370,000.
“By the time I became Executive Director this year, our average attendance had reached between 430 to 450,000 visitors. We peaked a couple of years ago at 498 thousand. When you consider that is made up of visitors from 150 countries, it’s pretty remarkable.
“We’ll get back there in time, and will break that half a million.”
Getting to the Royal Tyrrell Museum is part of the adventure
One of the Royal Tyrrell’s USPs is its location.
Lisa Making says, “It’s something we brought up in our communication strategy. Getting to the museum is part of the adventure. You drive through the Alberta Plains which are flat, nondescript. About an hour and a half into that drive you drop down suddenly into this valley with its dramatic hills. It’s a stunning departure. The atmosphere just evokes images of dinosaurs.”
Spanning an area from Drumheller to the Saskatchewan border and south to the United States, the Badlands is home to the largest deposits of dinosaur bones in the world.
“Whenever I ask anyone what is most memorable about their visit, they always make a reference to dropping down into that valley and seeing the landscape. That’s the first memory that they have. And that landscape is our playground. It is where our fieldwork occurs, so we are able to leverage that.
“We get museum professionals who come out here trying to figure out how we do what we do. I would say a good portion of our success is the fact that we’re located in these Badlands.”
A working research centre
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is a research centre, with scientists working there all the time.
“We have six full-time palaeontologists who are out in the field as we speak,” says Making. “They have specific areas that they work in, depending on the nature of their paleontological research.”
“Alberta has one of the most comprehensive fossil protection laws in the world now. We are used as a model for the protection laws we have in place. Often, if you’re in the Natural History Museum in London or the American Museum of Natural History, you will see dinosaurs that were found in Alberta and excavated before we opened and before that legislation.
“You can’t dig now without a license; you have to go through a permit process with us.”
Defining the storyline
Lisa Making noticed that over two decades the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s essential storyline had become blurred as galleries evolved at different rates.
“When the museum first opened, it was with the simple storyline of the formation of the Earth to the Pleistocene, around 11,000 years ago. You go in one direction, and there are advantages to that. Over the years, as different discoveries were being made throughout the province and different research priorities and exhibit priorities were popping up, that storyline started to diminish quite a bit.”
“When I became the Director of Exhibits, I wanted us to refocus back into that. I thought the fact we’re teaching about the history of life on Earth was a really neat strength that this museum has over a lot of others.
“One of the first galleries that I took on when I became Director was the Foundations exhibit. This teaches people about the formation of the planets, the formation of Earth, and then about the foundations of palaeontology.
“It sets the groundwork, and explains why Alberta is so significant in the paleontological record, so our visitors have a good idea of the scientific research. We talk about evolution, which is always a bit of a hot topic in some areas. It’s something that we talk about openly.
“I wanted to make sure that was back in our messaging again.”
Showcasing the Cenozoic era
At present, Lisa Making and her team are in the final stages of putting together an exhibition about the Cenozoic era at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
“The Cenozoic Gallery is the last Gallery in our timeline, of course. It hadn’t been touched since 1985 when the museum first opened.”
“The exhibits were inaccessible. The design was out of date. The specimens were not Alberta based. Over those 35 years that the museum had been open, we had amassed this amazing collection of Alberta mammals that had diversified after the K–Pg boundary. [The K-Pg boundary marks the end of the Cretaceous Period, the last period of the Mesozoic Era, and marks the beginning of the Paleogene Period, the first period of the Cenozoic Era.]
“We wanted to change that story.”
Rock star dinosaurs
Dinosaurs remain, she says, rock stars for the museum:
“But we wanted to show people just how amazing mammals are, and what our evolution looks like, while also reinforcing the concept of climate change, which is an important topic to discuss. We wanted to ensure people understand the differences between natural climate change and anthropogenic climate change.”
“Cenozoic brings that together for us. It takes you from the day the meteor hit. We call it ‘Deadly Day, where we talk about the end of dinosaurs and the mass extinctions that occurred. But then we also celebrate biodiversity and the diversity of mammals that arose quickly after dinosaurs died off.
“It’s going to be a fun exhibit. It should be opening around the beginning of December.”
The Royal Tyrrell Museum and COVID-19
The Royal Tyrrell was one of the first major museums in North America to reopen after the pandemic, along with its sister museum, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. Both closed on 18 March 2020, then reopened in late May.
“We were looking a lot to Europe and to Japan to see what strategies other museums were adopting, and how to adapt them to our audiences,” says Making.
“We were all nervous. There was a lot of anxiety around reopening for staff, but we did so carefully and strategically. We let our frontline staff drive the safety calls, and that was the biggest part. They’re the ones who are going to be out there every day. So we wanted to make sure that they felt safe.
“We worked with Alberta Health Services and our frontline staff to come up with a plan. We weren’t sure what to expect. But our visitor response was positive and swift. They were anxious to come out the moment we announced that we were going to be opening. We were getting phone calls and people wanting to book in. I think people were hungry for anything that resembled some normalcy.
I’m thrilled that we were able to offer that safely.”
Lisa Making on the importance of community support
Between May and September, the museum had about 1000 visitors a day. This is a mere 25% of its capacity. It is, Making says, an economic blow:
“But at least our visitors got to experience what we could offer.”
Mental wellbeing is so important. I think people are slowly starting to realise what museums and galleries can bring to that
The support of the local community has been key, she explains:
“It has been one of the really positive things to come out of this. It’s heartening to see how important you are to the local environment. Mental wellbeing is so important. I think people are slowly starting to realise what museums and galleries can bring to that, in terms of the escape that we provide.
“It brings a little bit of normalcy back into the very strange world we’re in.”
The Learning Lounge
While some initiatives, including the popular Learning Lounge added to the museum’s offering last year, remain strictly hands-off, the sophisticated social media campaign ensures audience engagement.
The Learning Lounge offers interactive displays and hands-on activities. It is part of a 1,300 m2 expansion allowing the museum to accommodate more than 430,000 annual visitors. The Learning Lounge is home to enhanced galleries and educational spaces and services.
The $9.3 million expansion was co-funded by the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada’s Department of Canadian Heritage.
“We closed the Learning Lounge when we reopened to take some time to evaluate how we can reopen it safely. We want people to be able to access the learning objectives we had for the space. But do so without it being so hands-on. The Royal Tyrrell is doing a lot of research on what other science museums and other hands-on areas are doing, in conversations with some colleagues.
“For our touch videos, for example, it might mean adopting a simple QR code.”
A new strategic plan for the Royal Tyrrell Museum
Immediately before the pandemic hit, a strategic plan had been developed for the Royal Tyrrell:
“It was,” Lisa Making says, “the first time the museum has ever had one in 35 years, which is shocking. I think we had just been opening our doors and seeing what happened for that whole period.
“When we recently started to observe some shifts socially and economically, we decided to connect with our community and our stakeholders and to establish the directions we wanted to take over the coming years.”
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“When the pandemic hit, it put a lot of things on pause, and so we parked it for a few months. Now we’re digging it back out and are ready to launch it publicly. We are able to talk about some of our goals and the things that we want to do and build as an institution.
“The timing of this strategic plan fits well with coming through this pandemic, and the ways in which we are having to adjust and make changes to ourselves as an institution in order to continue to be successful.
“We are a scientific research facility. We want to make sure we are that go-to paleontological resource for the public to connect with. Not just within Alberta or in Canada, but internationally.”
Lisa Making looks to the future
“We want to explore strengthening our public value,” says Making. “So that we are seen as so much more than a tourism destination.
“How do we achieve that? How can we best ensure we are that place that brings you joy? That helps you escape, and lets you learn at the same time while being socially responsible?”
How can we best ensure we are that place that brings you joy? That helps you escape, and lets you learn?
“We want to build some of our relationships, working more collaboratively with new communities; with new teachers, with scientists, with other researchers, with amateur palaeontologists, engaging with them a little bit more.
“And then, of course, we need to be diverse, equitable, accessible, inclusive.
“Financial resiliency and sustainability will be the most significant issue for a lot of organisations for the next few months. We need to ask what changes we need to make to ensure that, while also adhering to our core values.”