Organizations: Fernbank Museum
Nature’s Child: When Emily Harrison was a little girl in the late 1800s, she so loved to explore the mossy creek banks around her home in Druid Hills that she dreamed of a “school in the woods for nature study.”
Harrison and other conservationists ensured that 65 acres of that land were protected from development, creating one of the country’s largest urban forests, and she lived to see the groundbreaking of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1992 as a private nonprofit learning center to enhance public appreciation of the planet and its life forms.
Even the far-sighted Harrison likely would marvel at Fernbank’s $8-million children’s exhibition scheduled to open this spring, with more than 100 interactive experiences that encourage exploration in “immersive” habitats, including a cave, a waterfall, the sea and treetops.
High-tech Evolution: “The learning process for children in this iPhone age has changed since we first opened,” says spokesperson Brandi Berry. “So we’re using technology to make the exhibits even more intuitive, interactive and child-friendly. We’ll have special binoculars, so they’ll be able to see what lives here at night or see what’s under a rock or in a hollowed-out log within a safe, educational context, and we’ve added web components that will enable them to go home and apply these lessons to their own backyards.”
The changes, she says, are part of the “new wave of more sophisticated museum design that does not rely so much on things in glass cases.”
Snakes and Snails: Also outside the box are more live animals, mostly invertebrates, protected but observable in their natural habitat. Visitors can also sift pottery shards in realistic archeological digs.
Fernbank, which has 110 employees and 300 volunteers, derives most of its funding from ticket sales, sponsor support and foundation grants. A scholarship program provides assistance for Title I schools and children in the free- or reduced-lunch program.
In addition to numerous permanent exhibits, including the jaw-dropping “Giants of the Mesozoic,” with its scale model of the largest dinosaur ever classified, adults can enjoy “Martinis and IMAX,” a weekly event in the five-story theater featuring music, cocktails and a movie.
“Our mission is to spark an enduring curiosity for science and discovery,” says Christine Bean, a geologist and Fernbank’s vice president of education. “If we can instill love for the natural world, our visitors will be more likely to protect it.”