Prior to my visit to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, N.C., I reviewed their web site and found it very informative. Their web site is located at URL: http://www.naturalsciences.org/ . It is fairly easy to navigate and provides a comprehensive listing of exhibits, programs, school visit materials, and educational course offerings. A separate calendar of events lists daily, weekly, and annual events in many formats for planning a visit. Their research section lists and explains the museum’s involvement in a wide variety of collaborative research projects throughout North Carolina, Virginia, and the Southeast. They even have online publications such as checklists of North Carolina wildlife for field trips. One can also schedule a visit to use their extensive collections online through this part of the site. I also really enjoyed their online nature notebook of creatures and organisms found throughout North Carolina. This is a great way to extend museum visit education back into the classrooms and homes of the museum patrons. One can even subscribe to their nature notebook newsletter that highlights current events and updates on the wildlife and natural resources of North Carolina.
To plan my visit, I used the visitor page that contained ample information on location, admission fees, parking, maps, and even an interactive floor plan of the entire museum. It also has special operating hours, current special exhibits and daily programs for the week, and the operation guidelines of the gift shop and cafeteria on site. Group registration information and outreach program offerings are also included as links to this part of the site. The “just for teachers” section has a diversity of field trip offerings and options along with recommendations for various ages or classes to visit the museum. The FAQ page was quite good and covered all of the typical questions that teachers and groups might ask prior to their visit to the museum, including group rules for conduct within the museum. The web site, itself, if arranged well, although could use a bit of an update for more interactivity in the web 2.0 styles. It was easy to navigate and had a variety of methods to find needed information.
I visited the museum on Tuesday, March 4th, 2008. The entrance had ample space and many signs marked where to go to find exhibits and information. One helpful design elements is that one can visit the gift shop on the first floor without visiting museum. Main exhibit hall area is to right of entrance on the first floor. Floor space is utilized for occasional museum exhibits. The theater/presentation space is towards rear of entrance on first floor, again insuring that one can visit this without having to go through entire museum. The museum had several exemplary design elements incorporated in the entrance, including an information desk at front and ticket area at the right section immediately visible upon entering the museum. The rest rooms were clearly marked and at same general locations on each floor. The museum has four levels of public exhibits. A map is available at the front desk and visible at the same general locations on each floor, indicating a good standardized design for all visitors.
The first floor exhibits are mostly the permanent, dioramas and related to NC geology and wildlife in small displays. The main exhibit on North Carolina coasts includes huge dioramas, whale and other marine mammal skeletons, live animals in water habitats, and some basic interactive areas with exhibits. These were mostly as expected, typical dioramas, but I would like to see more interactivity with the exhibit to help visitors understand more about the nature of all of these creatures. The tour continues by going up to the second floor. Transportation follows three options—escalator, elevator, or stairs. The elevator is ADA approved for easy access and is fast, quiet and efficient. There are two large elevators running all of the time between floors as well as two escalators and the stairs.
The second floor houses the geology and ground species of NC wildlife and plant life. It extends up into the upper floors through balcony spaces, and vaulted rooms. Various North Carolina rocks, minerals, and fossils are displayed although in cases not conducive to the general nature of the rest of the exhibits. Many seem too boxy and unnatural in comparison with some of the better exhibits. Some displays are much better than others perhaps due to upgrades that are not yet complete. However, there was not enough interactivity with many exhibits other than the usual lifting of card or pushing of buttons. Many of the natural creatures in habitats were covered with plastic and inaccessible for those children who like to touch things. Some live animals and classrooms are available for interactivity, but apparently only under supervision of special program staff. The second floor also houses a discovery room and an earthquake seismograph display to show current locations of earthquakes. The discovery room is where the museum conducts many of its programs for younger children.
The third floor houses the upper atmosphere creatures and wildlife of North Carolina including some birds and insects as well as global connections to NC natural resources including tropical environments. It also has an exhibit on the nature of museums and how exhibiting has evolved over time along with the museum fossil lab and a few dinosaur reproductions in dioramas. The enclosed glass dinosaur exhibit is especially impressive on this floor and extends up to the top floor of the museum. There are moving dinosaurs, sound effects, foot prints for patrons to view and compare, and even a complete skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The fourth floor houses the museum’s insect zoo, Acro café, Naturalist center, and upper level view areas of dinosaurs and other areas. It also contains some offices and other museum space for exhibits, including a special study lab for many natural resources collections for student use. One popular exhibit in this area is the wildlife photography contest winners exhibit. The best photography of North Carolina wildlife by students and professionals is exhibited on this floor and many of the photographs are amazing. Another favorite on the fourth floor is the insect zoo and butterfly house. The museum houses a small collection of native North Carolina species of butterflies, some even are endangered. The Acro café provides a selection of sandwiches, snacks, and even a few hot items, and one can watch the butterflies or other exhibit areas from this popular roof-top style restaurant.
Overall positive impressions include that the dioramas and static displays were well done, but lack enough interactivity. Some may be due to problems with displays breaking. According to one museum official that I had a chance to talk with during my visit, the public does not treat the exhibits with enough respect any more. He was working on the invertebrate exhibits and discussing improvements to this exhibit in the next few months with an exhibit designer. He was concerned about how disrespectful the public may be on some exhibits especially with live animals. They have to take special care to keep the animals safe from the public in this museum and to insure that their interactive exhibits will not break. He was explaining that this is very difficult because people are less respectful of many exhibits now than they used to be, making exhibit design an even greater challenge.