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North Carolina's Most Visited Museum Teaches Visitors About the Natural World

By Kelly Church

North Carolina's most visited museum is the Museum of Natural Sciences, housing a plethora of other displays that explore the natural world. The downtown Raleigh museum strives to answer the main questions surrounding the natural sciences. Emlyn Koster, director of the museum, says the museum was founded just 20 years after Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species and was one of the country's first natural history museums.

"The institution has leapt forward from a small museum of natural history to a major resource of research and education about the natural world," Koster says. "Following two major expansions, the museum's mission to illuminate the interdependence of nature and humanity is propelled by the vital questions of, 'What do we know?' 'How do we know?' 'What is happening now?' and 'How can the public participate?'"

The Nature Exploration Center ? one of the museum's two main buildings ? shows visitors what we know about the natural sciences. Patrons can explore the natural world spanning from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and everything in between. Inside the Nature Exploration Center are exhibits including: Natural Treasures of North Carolina displaying Venus' Flytraps and other strange, native creatures; Coastal North Carolina exploring the beaches of the state; Coastal North Carolina Overlook exhibiting rare whale skeletons; Mountains to the Sea exploring all types of habitats in the region; an arthropod zoo for guests to see live bugs and their "larger-than-life models" and even more exhibits.

The Nature Research Center, which opened in 2012, shows visitors how we know, and provides a closer look at the research typically performed outside of the public eye. With glass-walled labs housing active researchers, alongside hands-on labs in which visitors can try out real tools and techniques used by scientists, visitors get a clearer view of what research is all about. Additional features include a Window on Animal Health, through which visitors can watch and communicate with Museum veterinarians as they do minor procedures and checkups on live animals; a Naturalist Center where visitors can identify, touch and study museum specimens; and a three-story multimedia theater in which Museum and guest scientists present their research findings to, and answer questions of, visitors.

Every three to six months, the Museum of Natural Sciences has a new traveling exhibit located in their Featured Exhibitions showroom. According to the museum's website, these set-ups are "created by world-class museums and exhibition companies" and are only housed at the museum for a limited time. Until mid-March, the featured exhibit is called Secret World Inside You, giving guests a glimpse at what is going on inside their bodies, focusing on the microorganisms that keep people alive. Starting in April, the featured exhibit will be RACE: Are We So Different? created by the American Anthropological Association to explore what race has meant throughout history, and today.

There are self-guided tours available at the Museum of Natural Sciences as well. Patrons can choose from many tours, including: Alive (exploring live animals), Biodiversity, Bug Out, Extinct, Hidden Gems, Staff Picks and Test-Your-Skills that uses interactive games to solve puzzles. There is also a first-time visitor tour, taking guests to the must-see exhibits. Koster says the variety of things to see at the museum helps the facility stand out, always giving guests something new to check out.

"The museum is unusual for its variety of day, weekend and seasonal featured experiences," Koster says. "These range from award-winning films about conservation, to dialogues about sustainable development goals, to immersion in research experiences, to major exhibitions on tour, to evening science cafes with topical speakers, to special programs about astronomy, amphibians, reptiles and bugs, and member opportunities to connect with nature, locally and globally."

Membership is available to those who want to support the museum. Memberships can be given to individuals, families and couples, and come with an array of benefits including free or discounted admission to the museum's special exhibits, and free or discounted admission to more than 300 science museums all over the world. For nonmembers, the museum offers free general admission. Donations are appreciated, but not expected upon entry.

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