There is a place in Mississippi where the now extinct passenger pigeon still roosts, where the remnants of the giant sea turtle, zygorhiza whale and the mastodon may yet be discovered. It is the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (MMNS) in Jackson, serving a state rich in history and fascination with what that history holds.
“An understanding of our natural history adds to that sense of place a lot of Mississippians have,” said Libby Hartfield, museum director. “What fun is it to travel back to the old home place to find the area around it changed?”
MMNS is the official state repository for all collection, documentation, exhibition and education of the Mississippi’s wildlife of yesterday and today. Some 300,000 lots (specimens or groups of specimens) are housed at the facility which is in the process of building a new, larger building at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson.
The pioneer of MMNS was Ellen Cook, who in the 1920s worked at the Smithsonian Institute. Seeing the then new interest in natural history, Cook decided to start one back home in Mississippi. Cook lobbied the legislature for funding and it opened in 1939.
Cook eventually built the museum into a 19-branch system (some of these satellite exhibits still exist with one good example found in the science building on the campus of Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead) employing at one point some 100 people. Though Cook passed away in 1964, her legacy is still very much apparent today.
Today the museum no longer operates branches and employs only 30 people, but that’s not to say it has not grown. The museum moved several times over its history, eventually settling in its current locale on Jefferson Street boasting 22,500 square feet in 1973. And over that time it evolved many new features and programs, such as Project WILD which has taught approximately 7,000 school teachers in all 82 counties about Mississippi wildlife instruction. The museum estimates that about 800,000 Mississippians are reached annually through its programs and museum visitation, which can be as high as 1,000 daily.
Hartfield, who was named director in 1988, said talk of expanding the existing facility or building a new one began almost immediately after she took over the directorship. The eventual choice of Lefleur’s Bluff was not surprising. Discussions about moving there had been ongoing for years, and in 1979 when flood waters inundated Jefferson Street, Hartfield conducted educational programs at the park in the interim.
“Moving to the park was not made earlier because of the museum’s draw during the State Fair and they didn’t want to lose the fairground connection,” Hartfield said. “But it’s a natural fit. We’re hoping to get much more traffic, and the miles of nature trails and 300 acres of woods will give us resources we didn’t have before.”
In 1995 the legislature appropriated $14 million for construction. The new facility is set for completion in the fall or winter of this year. When complete the museum will house roughly 73,000 square feet. It will include an expanded aquarium system, 200-seat auditorium, classrooms, gift shop, library, interactive exhibits and expanded research and laboratory space. MMNS will also include more than two miles of trails and 300 acres of natural habitat. And it will offer a special exhibit to Cook and her pioneering efforts.
Hartfield said the museum’s aim is not just to get bigger, but to better serve the public.
“Through our studies, we’ve learned that people learn more when they use their senses as opposed to just reading information,” she said. “We can have the best information to give, but if people lose interest and don’t read the words, they are no good. Our mission is to collect, display and educate people on Mississippi wildlife. But we have to entertain, too.”
The staff is in the process of boxing up and moving. Thus, the Jefferson Street facility is closed. As an interim place for exhibits, the museum has set up a satellite facility at Northpark Mall, which is sponsoring the satellite operation. Hartfield said corporate sponsorship has always been important at the museum, but now is critical. The museum’s budget, currently about $1 million for the museum facility operation and maintenance and the various programs, is expected to grow to about $3 million in 2001. And while a large part of the money needed for the new facility has been raised, an additional $700,000 is still needed for exhibits.
“I think the museum is important to business because it depends so much on our natural resources,” Hartfield said, adding that, while existing strictly on government funding is nearly impossible to accomplish the mission, an individual’s or group’s time may be just as crucial as monetary donations. “We can’t run this place without volunteers. And another asset of the new place is that we’ll be able to utilize more volunteer help.”
For more information on MMNS, call (601) 354-7303.