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Alberta - March 5, 2020

Perhaps you remember the little museum the regulator used to run. You know, the Energeum? Simone Marler sure does. “It was a place where we offered creative programs about Alberta’s resource industry,” she says. “It wasn’t a very big space, but it made learning fun through hands-on displays.”

Marler ought to know. While today she enjoys the quiet life on Pender Island off of British Columbia’s coast, nearly 40 years ago she accepted a challenge to launch and operate a visitor centre—very much like a modern science centre—geared towards a public audience.

Located on the main floor in the regulator’s Calgary headquarters, then on 5 Avenue SW and now a Tim Hortons, the Energeum told Alberta’s energy story through displays related to resources and how they were formed, produced, transported, and used by the consumer. It also educated visitors about the energy industry’s history.

Its genesis dates back to the late 1970s when the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER’s) predecessor, the Energy Resources Conservation Board’s, senior leaders recognized that many Albertans failed to grasp the importance of the province’s most important economic sector. When the regulator moved in to a new office building in 1980, a third of the main floor was set aside for a visitor centre—the brainchild of then chair, Vern Millard.

Creative Energeum Exhibit

One of the creative exhibits displayed at the Energeum.

“He had such a vision,” says Marler. “I said to him, ‘this is a regulatory, technical organization that does approvals and hearings, and employs geologists and engineers.’ I asked him, ‘what do you think would be a future for a person like myself?’ He said, ‘well, we’re growing and the public is a lot more interested in us these days.’”

The Energeum opened its doors in 1983. At the time, it was the only place in Alberta that told the story of the province’s energy industry through hands-on exhibits and in-depth school programs. The centre educated and entertained 25-30,000 visitors annually, many of whom were school kids, but also adults.

Some of Marler’s favourite programs included an activity that taught kids what it takes to turn organic material into hydrocarbons—namely time, heat, and pressure. The kids would stuff plant material into an envelope, sit on it for a while, and then guess to see if coal had formed (it hadn’t). She also recalls a large interactive map of Alberta that lit up coal, oil sands, oil, and natural gas regions when visitors pushed the right buttons.

“Without the aid of modern electronics, that map was very creative for the time and a real eye-opener for understanding the scale of the province’s resources.”

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Science centre exhibits wear out as do the stories and technologies behind them; for example, the oil sands and environmental narratives needed to be updated. The Energeum would require a huge investment to keep operating. “The board just felt that it had to focus more on its core function,” she notes.

“It was a very hard decision, and I remember the board was fully behind the plan to donate viable Energeum displays to other institutions. For example, the famous 1958 pink Buick found a new home at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin.”

Energeum Pink Buik

The pink Buick that was once displayed at the Energeum can still be seen at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum.

So, the board decided to shutter this little gem before the end of the millennia; the last visitors passed through its doors on December 23, 1999. On January 12, 2000, 17 years to the day after it opened, a closing celebration allowed staff and others involved in the project to bid the Energeum adieu.

Not long after, Marler moved on to new challenges. But she says the Energeum still ranks as one her favourite career experiences.

“It was unique that a regulatory agency was making that big shift to involve the public in the decision making about the resources of the province, and it was a very progressive to make sure Albertans, especially younger Albertans, had an opportunity to better understand their energy resources.”

Energeum visitor

A young Energeum visitor uses one of the interactive exhibits to learn more about oil extraction methods.

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