The wait ended Friday when the Cook Museum of Natural Science opened in downtown Decatur.
The opening of the $32.4 million, 62,000-square-foot facility is an investment in the city in more ways than one. It is both an endorsement of past downtown revitalization efforts and the linchpin of downtown’s future.
More than that, however, it is an investment in the minds of the young people who will visit the museum in the coming weeks, months and years. The Cook Museum of Natural Science, at Lee Street Northeast and Fourth Avenue, joins other north Alabama attractions, Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Birmingham’s McWane Center, in seeking to stimulate minds, educate students and instill in children an appreciation for the world around them.
It is also a testament to the faith of the Cook family in their community.
The Cooks have been an entrepreneurial success story for over 90 years. John L. Cook founded North Alabama Termite Control in 1928. His son, John R. Cook Sr., took over the company in 1950 and renamed it Cook’s Pest Control. The company expanded and now serves six states.
In 1968, John R. Cook Sr. opened a small museum in the company’s Decatur warehouse. It would move to a 5,000-square-foot building on 13th Street Southeast in 1980, and the “bug museum,” as it was affectionately known, would attract 750,000 visitors from its opening in 1980 to its closure in 2016 to make way for the new Museum of Natural Science.
Expectations for the new museum are much higher.
A marketing study by America’s Research Group predicts the museum will attract 200,000 visitors a year, not including school groups. The study predicted 60% of the visitors will come on Saturdays.
That would amount to 800,000 visitors in four years, vs. 750,000 visitors for the “bug museum” over 36 years, a world of difference reflecting the world of difference between the old museum and the new.
The new museum opened Friday to capacity crowds. Nearby parking lots filled, and visitors waited their turns to enter, 50 at a time every 15 minutes, for the museum’s self-guided tours.
Inside they found 11 exhibit galleries, each with numerous interactive displays. A cave exhibit replicates caves found in Alabama. A 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium is home to marine life like that found in the Gulf of Mexico. The two animal care specialists are in charge of at least 60,000 bees, multitudes of bugs and more than 259 other animals.
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.
For the downtown businesses that have waited 5½ years for the Cook Museum of Natural Science, things are also looking up. The museum is the largest player in an ecosystem that includes restaurants, entertainment venues and the Alabama Center for the Arts. This is the day some of those restaurants, which opened anticipating business they hope the museum will bring, have anxiously anticipated.
There is more to be done. The City Council and Morgan County Commission need to get on the same page regarding downtown parking, which virtually all agree is already a problem on days when court is in session. Hopefully, with the museum’s opening, it will be a problem at other times, too. Too many people is a good problem to have — so long as city and county leaders take steps to address it.
This is Decatur’s moment to shine.