Museum unites science and humanities in Raleigh

New Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, N.C.
New Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Nowadays, the humanities and the sciences often seem to be on separate paths, but unnecessarily so, at least in Raleigh.

The state’s Museum of Natural Sciences has a mission that spans the interconnected worlds of nature and humanity. As shown by recent spectacles with the NC Symphony, this institution embraces the blurring of its boundaries with the arts and humanities. The most recent illustration, from spring to fall last year, was the exhibition Race: Are we so Different? With corporate, foundation, government and university funders, this free learning experience took an anthropological approach to explore the topical issue of race through three lenses: the science of human variation, human history, and lived experiences in the US.

The next example will be on February 23 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts when the worlds of fiction and fact come together in Thrillers!, a special event featuring a conversation between renowned authors John Grisham and John Hart, moderated by D. G. Martin of UNC-TV’s NC Bookwatch. Making the point that thrilling stories can be both imagined and discovered, their conversation will be preceded by updates from the American West with Dr. Lindsay Zanno, head of dinosaur paleontology at the Museum.

Long before John Grisham became synonymous with the legal thriller, he worked 60-70 hours a week at a small Mississippi law firm, squeezing in time on his first novel before office hours and during courtroom recesses. Today, his books have been translated into four dozen languages and sold 300 million copies. The Firm, the first bestseller, sold more than seven million copies and became a feature film. Eight others, including The Client, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker and A Time to Kill have had film adaptations. His 25th and newest legal thriller, The Rooster Bar, was released last October.

Novels by John Hart take place in his native North Carolina. He was the first to win consecutive Edgar Allen Poe Awards for Best Mystery Novel – Down River and The Last Child. Together with The King of Lies, Iron House and Redemption Road, these have been New York Times bestsellers. His other awards include the North Carolina Award for Literature and Southern Book Prize.

Building on a world first visualized in The Last Child, Hart’s newest book, The Hush, has its national launch at the February 23 event. Thrillers! An Evening with Authors John Grisham and John Hart is supported by WRAL-TV, Business North Carolina and the North Carolina Humanities Council with net proceeds going to the Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Tickets are available through the museum’s website.

Sixty years ago, the British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow famously declared that the “two cultures” of the sciences and humanities were a barrier to solving the world’s problems. The secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. David Skorton, recently remarked: “It has been said that science helps us understand what we can do; the arts and humanities – our culture and values – help us decide what to do. Studying the arts and humanities develops critical-thinking skills and nimble habits of mind, provides historical and cultural perspectives and fosters the ability to analyze, synthesize and communicate … I am learning quickly the leading role museums and other cultural institutions can play in our communities, the country and the world, and how they can effect and stimulate discourse and action.” Last year, the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council merged with a powerful message that “the future of science depends on collapsing the walls between academic disciplines.”

When you next visit the Museum, check out the story of the Atlantic Right Whale on the ground floor of its Nature Research Center. Killed in 2004 by a passing ship, this pregnant leviathan washed ashore at Nag’s Head. Research on its carcass by Dr. Regina Campbell-Malone of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution led to a major reduction in shipping speeds. We see how a compelling story helped to steer a species away from extinction.

Emlyn Koster, PhD, is director of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. He is also an adjunct professor in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State University and chair of a new working group looking at human impacts on natural systems for the International Council of Museums.