It has a beehive and plenty of insects, but the museum opening in downtown Decatur on Friday is no bug museum.
Brian Cook, president and chairman of the Cook Museum of Natural Science, proudly traces the lineage of the 62,000-square-foot museum in downtown Decatur to the 5,000-square-foot “bug museum” founded by his grandfather, the late John Cook Sr. And while the small museum at Cook’s Pest Control was popular — attracting 750,000 visitors from its opening in 1980 to its closure in 2016 — no one will mistake the polished, high-tech $32.4 million facility that houses Brian Cook’s brainchild with its humble predecessor.
The grand opening of the nonprofit Cook Museum on Lee Street Northeast and Fourth Avenue is Friday, and the nervous anticipation of Cook and staff members was evident Tuesday.
“You plan and plan and plan, and talk and talk and talk, and suddenly it’s here,” Cook said.
Schelly Corry, executive director of the museum, was giddy as a small group took an advance tour Tuesday. She’s been working toward Friday’s opening for more than five years.
“To see it get to this point right now is so exhilarating, butterflies in your stomach,” Corry said. “It’s like you figured out what you hope is the perfect gift for somebody and you wrapped it up in the most beautiful way possible, and it’s time to give them this gift, and you get to watch them unwrap it.
“The anticipation of watching someone unwrap a gift that you put so much effort into can be very emotional, actually. For people to come and see what you’ve put so much of your heart and your mind into, and effort.”
The museum, which has a projected annual operating budget of $5 million to $6 million, is packed with interactive exhibits and facts about nature, presented in a way to pique the interest of the most cynical child or world-weary adult. An aquarium with a coral display is labeled, “Coral Wars: They may look pretty and peaceful, but corals are skilled killers.” A sped-up video of the creatures provides a close-up view of the carnage.
A kid more enamored of video games than nature might think twice before passing up the wood frog exhibit, “Packed with pee,” and the explanation of how arctic frogs use urea as antifreeze to prevent cellular damage.
Live alligators, bees, turtles, snakes, jellyfish, and yes, bugs, draw attention, and all come with fascinating facts in text or video. A unique kinetic sand table uses software developed by a Huntsville programmer to replicate volcanic activity, rain and lightning.
An Alabama focus is consistent throughout the museum, both in the natural features displayed and in the contractors used. Most of the exhibits, including an elaborate caves exhibit that replicates Alabama cave structures, were built by Southern Custom Exhibits from Anniston. Corry worked with the landscaper to ensure exterior plants are native to the state. The alligators are from an Alabama reserve, and will be returned there when they mature.
Dozens of taxidermy animals are spaced throughout the museum, all labeled and many with information about their habits and habitat. Taxidermy songbirds are paired with a primer on bird identification.
A 15,000-gallon curved-glass saltwater exhibit lines a wall of the oceans exhibit, and is populated by colorful tropical fish and an assortment of sea creatures.
The “Looking Up” exhibit focuses on Earth’s place in the solar system, with interactive displays explaining how many things had to be just right to sustain life — “the right atmosphere,” “the right moon,” “the right star.” An interactive digital display allows visitors to adjust everything from the Earth’s tilt to its atmosphere until they duplicate conditions that permit life.
“We’re looking forward to this being a wonderful place to educate and a wonderful place to engage the children and get them really excited about the world around them,” said Kara Long, collections and gallery experience manager, one of 29 full-time staff members. Including part-time employees, the museum has a staff of 117.
The museum has 11 exhibit galleries, each one with numerous interactive displays.
While Cook and Corry both speak of the economic impact they expect the museum to have on Decatur, their focus is elsewhere. For them, the museum provides an opportunity to spark curiosity and change young lives.
“When you can inspire the next generation just to be curious, when you can inspire them to be fascinated by the world around them, you effect change,” Corry said. “The other thing that happens in places like this is the child’s perception of what science and math are shifts. It can be a fearful set of topics: ‘That’s too hard; I don’t like it.’ When they come here, they have a totally different experience: ‘Maybe I am interested in this. Maybe I can do science.’ That right there is what I live and breathe for. I cannot wait to see that.”
Several groups have been through the museum as it has headed toward completion, mainly as a method for the staff to get feedback in completing and perfecting exhibits.
“Like any big project, there have been obstacles. It may cost more than you thought and take more time and effort,” Cook said.
Indeed it did. When the project was announced in January 2014, the facility was expected to be half the size and to open in the old CarQuest Auto Parts building in late 2015. With $7 million in seed money from the Cook family and market research indicating the museum will receive 214,000 visitors in the first year, not including school groups, plans continued to expand. The auto parts building was demolished, making way for the structure that now marks an entryway into downtown Decatur. The museum board has raised $21 million of the $32.4 million capital cost.
“It may have been more difficult, but it’s also more meaningful," continued Cook. "Seeing the kids and the families come through here, light bulbs are just going off. They’re being inspired, just like we hoped. It’s been worth it. It’s more than worth it.”