The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences will open a mini version of itself Saturday in this town of fewer than 6,000 residents two hours south of the museum’s Raleigh home.
In a former bank building next to city hall, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences at Whiteville offers a place where visitors – children in particular – can learn about the goals and methods of science and some of what it teaches us about nature.
It’s a test of whether the museum in Raleigh can use branch facilities to reach people in comparatively poor and isolated parts of North Carolina, director Emlyn Koster said. He hopes there eventually will be others.
“I expect it will attract other communities to say: Well, can we talk about having one of these as well?” Koster said. “That would be the ace in the pack.”
The museum has few exhibits to stand and look at. Instead, it is full of activities that let children from toddlers on up practice basic science with help from parents and teachers.
For kids under 7, there’s a Discovery Forest, with toys and activities such as a “sand and sniff” station, where kids can use sandpaper to elicit the aromas of red cedar, loblolly pine, black walnut and white oak logs.
Older children will find a fossil lab and various stations where they learn basic scientific techniques, such as measuring an alligator skull to calculate the animal’s approximate length.
There’s also a smaller version of the Raleigh museum’s popular Naturalist Center. It features drawers full of furs, bones and shells to touch and a digital microscope called a Microeye that lets kids get a closer look at such things as butterfly scales and molted tarantula skin.
The Whiteville museum has about 5,000 square feet of public space, including the activity areas, a gift shop and a classroom, as well as an outdoor Nature Play Space.
“It’s really sort of a slice of the best parts of the Raleigh museum, in a smaller place to reach a smaller audience,” said LuAnne Pendergraft, senior grant writer for the museum in Raleigh.
Like its counterpart in Raleigh, the Whiteville science museum highlights the world kids can find in their backyards or neighborhoods, said Liz Baird, director of education. And it does it in a hands-on way that is much more effective than watching on a screen, she said.
By bringing that to Whiteville, the museum finds an audience it might not otherwise reach.
“For some folks, the drive from here to Raleigh might as well be driving to California,” Baird said.
Replacing exhibits about trees
The Whiteville branch is opening in the former N.C. Museum of Forestry, a more traditional exhibit-based institution that showcased the importance of forests to the state. It included an exhibit called Goods from the Woods on foods, medicines and other products that come from trees. And there was a large collection of “tree cookies,” hundreds of preserved cross-sections of North Carolina trees, collected in the early 1900s for use in various expositions.
The forestry museum got its start in 1998, when former state Sen. R.C. Soles sponsored a $1 million allocation to establish it in a shuttered branch of First Citizens Bank, where Soles served on the board of directors. For many years after, the museum felt very “banklike,” with teller booths and glassed-in offices still evident on the first floor, said Kellie Lewis, who was the education coordinator for the forestry museum and plays the same role for the new museum.
Then in 2011, the state spent $1.6 million renovating the building to make it feel more like a museum. In part because of that investment, museum backers were surprised when two years later the state Senate budget proposed to eliminate the museum’s $357,000 operating budget and sell the museum to Whiteville or Columbus County for $1. The forestry museum just wasn’t drawing enough people to justify the expense, Senate budget writers said.
The museum survived, but that fall members of the Friends of the N.C. Forestry Museum, the local support group, came to Koster to talk about its future. Administratively, the Whiteville forestry museum had always been a part of the science museum, though they had different missions. Koster says there was quick agreement on the satellite concept, one that he says had worked well in New Jersey when he was director of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.
The friends group agreed to raise $100,000 for the physical changes necessary to convert the museum, while the science museum in Raleigh offered its expertise and will continue to cover its operating budget.
The new science museum is a source of pride in a county that, like many in rural North Carolina, is struggling. Though the International Paper plant down the road in Riegelwood still provides hundreds of good-paying jobs, a Georgia-Pacific lumber and plywood plant in Whiteville shut down five years ago, throwing 400 out of work. Columbus County’s population has actually declined in recent years to an estimated 57,246 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
About 75 percent of public school students here are poor enough that they’re eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The county school system is classified as Title 1 by the federal government, which means it has a relatively high concentration of poverty.
U.S. 74 skirts by Whiteville, carrying people to and from Wilmington and the beaches. Jennifer Holcomb of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism said she and other business leaders hope the museum will do a better job of luring some of them off the highway.
“We’re continually talking about how to capitalize on that traffic,” Holcomb said. “This is one opportunity.”
But Holcomb understands that the target audience is the children and families of Columbus County and surrounding areas, which is a different measure of success.
Rather than an exhibit-based museum, where people visit once and cross it off their list, the Whiteville museum expects to offer programs and an experience that keep families and school groups coming again and again, the way the main museum does in Wake County.
“There’s a lot of kids that never come to Raleigh,” said Pendergraft, the state museum’s senior grant writer. “So we’re going to go to them.”