RALEIGH At 6 p.m. Friday, the Nature Research Center welcomed its first saucer-eyed kid to gawk at robotic bats, its first grabby fingers to touch a computerized map of Australia, its first nose pressed to a tank with a stingray swimming inside.
More than 1,000 people jammed Jones Street downtown for the museum’s 24-hour grand opening. They stood in a line that stretched around the block to Lane Street, waiting 45 minutes for a chance to stand inside the three-story globe that gradually took shape over the past year.
If for nothing else, history will mark this day as a moment when school-age kids in Raleigh rushed to peer through a microscope on a Friday night, when Wii and Netflix usually beckon.
For all the butterfly collectors in the Triangle, all the junior herpetologists, all the budding engineers who started out on Legos, Friday delivered a new shrine.
“We’re taking scientists out of their lab coats and isolated labs and putting them into the spotlight,” said Meg Lowman, director of the Nature Research Center. “They are the new rock stars.”
The NRC arrives as the shiny new wing of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which already draws 700,000 people a year, more than any other museum in the state. Adding 80,000 square feet and costing $56 million, the new wing expected to send attendance rocketing up by nearly 30 percent.
“We’ve shown people again today that in North Carolina, with our tax dollars, we’re willing to go the extra mile,” Gov. Bev Perdue told the gathered crowd. “To dream big dreams.”
The celebration began with pomp, symbolism and science geekery, starting with the pounding of the Shaw University drum line and finishing with a giant crane puppet sailing over Jones Street, carried by six people. Sir Walter Raleigh strutted past the crowd, kissing hands. Vendors gave out free seashells and invited passers-by to isolate the DNA from a strawberry.
Water from the world
Samples of water collected from around the world – the Ganges River, the Thames River, the Vatican – were mixed in a locally made pot, then poured over a newly planted tree at the NRC’s entrance.
“Isn’t it wonderful that what you are involved in right now is happening in the only place in the universe?” asked Chuck Davis, founder of the African-American Dance Ensemble, which performed Friday. “Smile, y’all. For the remainder of your life, smile.”
Even as they waited in line, visitors had science thrust at them. Volunteers worked the crowd offering owl’s feathers to touch and containers of seaweed to smell. For parents, who’ve been passing the globe-shaped SECU Daily Planet for months, Friday was a chance to finally tell their kids, “Yes. You can go in now.”
“Our daughter Annika is two and a half, and we’ve been telling her wait till April,” said Frank McKay, math and science teacher at Exploris Middle School. “She doesn’t know what April means, but she’s champing at the bit to get in here.”
Annika, and a thousand more saucer eyes.