RALEIGH — Emlyn Koster is setting his sights high for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in the wake of the triumphant opening of the Nature Research Center, which drew a record public attendance and national accolades in its first year.
With more than 1.2 million visitors touring the $56 million research center in 2012, the museum director says it’s time to turn that widespread interest into action.
“I want people to fall in love with nature,” Koster said Thursday during a break and a cup of coffee (extra brown sugar, please) at the museum’s Science Cafe.
“There are things people need to know about and then become inspired to do something about – whether it’s going to out to clean up the riverbank, driving a higher mpg car, or following worldwide environmental issues,” he continued. “If we can activate their interest, people will participate in finding solutions, and we will maximize the impact of this great investment.”
Koster stepped into the museum’s top post just this past January, after longtime director and visionary Betsy Bennett retired.
Returning from the American Alliance of Museums conference in Baltimore earlier this month, Koster, who trained as a geologist, seemed gratified by the buzz that has been generated by the Nature Research Center, where visitors work alongside scientists from N.C. State and other universities to investigate nature, tracking flocks of egrets or identifying dinosaur bones.
A stellar year
The new 80,000-square-foot center is the latest crown jewel for the museum that got its start in 1879 as a collection of rocks, fossils and agricultural products.
In 2000, an updated museum opened in a new location across from the Legislative Building on Jones Street, attracting some 2.5 million visitors in its first decade.
The Nature Research Center, by comparison, drew 70,000 on just one day in 2012 – on April 20 for the grand opening.
First-year total attendance toppled Asheville’s Biltmore House and Gardens from its long-held spot as the state’s most popular visitor attraction.
“Hats off to the museum staff,” says Jonathan Freeze, director of marketing for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They got people talking about the new wing a year in advance, and it became the biggest new visitor development of the year.”
Maintaining that momentum will be difficult, said Dewey Blanton, director of media relations for the American Alliance of Museums.
“It’s a challenge for all museums to keep people coming back,” Blanton said.
Playing on science buzz
Blanton, whose organization represents science, arts, history and other types of museums, said that the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences may have an advantage because science is a hot topic.
“Science education is at the top of the political agenda; the effects of climate change are in the news,” Blanton said. “The museum can play off that by responding to news of the day in a thoughtful and beneficial way.”
Another way that museum staff hopes to keep patrons’ interest is by playing to a broader audience.
Broadening its appeal
While the new animated exhibit “Dinosaurs in Motion” is just the ticket for an elementary school class field trip, other programs appeal to different slices of the visitor demographic: science-minded adults, downtowners on lunch break and, perhaps most hopefully, young couples on date night.
The museum’s Science Thursday program runs from 5 to 9 p.m. every week, with drinks and music in the Science Cafe and a chance to perform experiments or check out wildlife specimens in the nature center. Meeting spaces in the center also are being offered for conferences, such as the 2014 Association of Science-Technology Centers gathering planned for October 2014.
A boon for the state
The museum’s payback also can be seen in terms of economic activity.
The average visitor spends more than $500 on a three-night trip to North Carolina, said Witt Tuttle, at the N.C. Department of Tourism.
North Carolina is the sixth-most-visited state in the country, and visitors generate at least $19 billion for the state last year, Tuttle added.
“We see places that remain popular year after year,” Tuttle said.
Koster, like many in the state, is eager to see whether the Museum of Natural Sciences will be among them.