WASILLA -- Valley oncologist Dr. Larry Lawson jokingly refers to his new "Origins" museum in a Wasilla strip mall as the first "3-D exhibit" because it features one-of-a-kind divinity, DNA and dinosaur artifacts all under the same roof.
"There's nothing like this anywhere else in the world," said Lawson, who began collecting fossils as a young boy and now owns an estimated $15 million worth of dinosaur bones and biblical manuscripts on display in a 7,500-square-foot storefront near Lake Lucille on the Parks Highway.
Lawson, of Big Lake, said his childhood dreams of being a paleontologist were put aside when he first made his fortunes in hotels and real estate in the Southwest, then later became a physician.
But it was a combination of his experiences meeting his birth mother and treating cancer patients that most sparked his fascination with life's greatest curiosities: Where do we come from and what happens to us when we die?
"My patients often wonder why they ended up with their illnesses. Was it in their genes or their environment? And many of them are suddenly faced with the prospect of dying," Lawson said the day after the museum opened Oct. 20. "There are so many unknowns out there and I'm certainly not trying to convince anyone to believe one way or another. I just want them to look at what's before them and decide for themselves."
First greeted by an array of dinosaur skeletons dating back millions of years, more than 1,300 visitors to "Origins -- The Museum" already have perused display cases containing actual fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest printed English Bibles from the 1500s, rare celestial atlases from the 16th and 17th centuries and historically significant medieval manuscripts from as early as A.D. 1190.
The first editions of works by Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton also figure prominently in the museum, scheduled to remain in its Valley location until at least Nov. 28.
"I hope it's well-received," Lawson said, adding he's hoping a corporate sponsor will step in so that he can keep the museum in the Valley permanently, instead of taking it on the road to Colorado, Georgia and other states.
"I have no agenda other than to get people to think. I wanted to offer people here something other than big box stores and strip malls."
A steady stream of Valley and Anchorage residents drifted through the museum Sunday as senior curator Joel Lampe helped with questions and organized tours.
Many said they heard about the exhibit through their churches or local media. A few children had been there once already with their schools.
None of them had anything negative to say -- regardless of their religious beliefs.
"It's really interesting to be able to see original Bibles and how old they are," said Wasilla resident Shelbi Luckhurst.
"You don't get to see things like this all the time -- especially in Wasilla. It's even more amazing that someone local did this."
A Wasilla father with his three home-schooled children explained to them how Hebrew writing differs from English as they gazed upon a giant Torah inscribed on ram skin. He said that although he studied the Bible in Europe and has seen some "pretty old stuff," he's glad he's able to share such artifacts with his children now.
"If we're going to have a future we need to appreciate the past," said Joel Florian, an electrical estimator.
"I don't think we should force anything on anybody, but at least give them the tools to figure it out for themselves."
Lampe, the senior curator, said he's not only shocked by the amount of people who have visited the museum so far, but how positive most of them have been about it.
"We had a couple of people who didn't like the Darwin stuff, but that's to be expected," Lampe said.
"Larry has one of the finest inventories in the world. He's got more Dead Sea Scrolls material here than any academic institution and that's the very foundation of the Bible." That Lawson has so many of these documents is "a slap in the face to every Christian university if you think about it."
Origins - The Museum is located in the former Shoprite mall at 449 W. Parks Highway.
It is open 9 a.m.to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
For information on tickets -- $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children -- visit www.origins-themuseum.com or call 376-2888 about group sales.
Contact K.T. McKee at 352-6711.
By K.T. McKEE
Alaska Dispatch Publishing