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Museum of Natural Science remains tourist draw

Jackson — The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (MMNS) is the state’s top Travel Attraction of the Year, according to the Mississippi Tourism Association, and the numbers tell why. Annually, 150,000-160,000 people visit the museum at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park at Interstate 55 and Lakeland Drive. Zip code surveys show that visitors from all 82 Mississippi counties, every state in the union and numerous foreign lands have come through the museum’s door.

“The staff here has done an excellent job of listening to people, determining what they want to see at the museum, then settling for nothing less,” said Libby Hartfield, who heads up the MMNS. “I’ve always thought that it is much easier to offer folks something they already want rather than trying to sell them something they may or may not want. That’s what the staff has done here. They constantly strive for excellence, and that’s why the museum has been so successful.”

Education and research

The MMNS has had a long time to get it right. The museum’s biological collections originated in 1935, and have grown to more than 500,000 specimens. According to the MMNS, this represents the largest single reference for Mississippi vertebrate animals and freshwater mussels in existence today.

The museum offers life-size displays and exhibits focused on white-tailed deer, waterfowl, extinct and endangered species, alligator snapping turtles among many others. MMNS also offers living species on display. A 100,000-gallon aquarium system features more than 200 living species of fish, reptiles, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, and a 1,700-square-foot greenhouse, called “The Swamp,” has its own 20,000-gallon aquarium featuring alligators, fish and turtles.

Inside, MMNS also offers a 200-seat auditorium, 2,500-square-foot library, gift shop and classroom space, but the museum also offers plenty to do and see outdoors. The museum overlooks 300 acres and 2.5 miles of nature trails, and an open-air amphitheater is also featured. The museum’s campus also contains seven demonstration sites for erosion, sediment and stormwater management.

While MMNS pulls in tourists from all points on the map, its main mission has always been and continues to be education. A large portion of the museum’s visitors are school children who are brought in and offered hands-on, interactive programs. (The museum also provides educational object kits and videos on loan to state schools.) Teacher training workshops, such as “Project WILD” and “Project “WET,” are also an important educational component.

MMNS’ current exhibit is a prime example of its mission to educate both the young and the old. The “World of Giant Insects” opened June 17 and will run through September 10. The exhibit offers robotic insects 40 to 120 times their actual size. Each insect has between five and 20 moving parts achieved by hydraulic mechanisms and electric motors. To give an idea of the scale, a praying mantis is 19 feet long, a giant walking stick is 21 feet long and a locust is 13 feet long.

Last year’s exhibit featured a mock up of a tyrannosaurus rex, and drew approximately 60,000 visitors. However, that exhibit was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, which negatively impacted attendance.

Thus, Hartfield is expecting the giant robotic insects to outdraw the dinosaur exhibit, perhaps pulling in as many as 70,000 visitors. “The giant robotic insects have been a big hit so far,” she said. “The children want to touch them, pick them up. It’s great to see them interact with the exhibit.”

In March 2000, MMNS opened the doors of its current state-of-the-art facility. Many visitors are struck by the improvement the 73,000-square-foot museum is over the former facility. And, while Hartfield said there is no doubt the new museum, which is approximately four times bigger than the former building, offers nicer amenities than the old building, she still has a fondness for the old museum.

“People tell me all the time how much better the new museum is,” she said. “Maybe it was because I was there so long, but I loved the old place.” Hartfield added that a lot of the old museum was brought over to the new site. “We looked at what worked well in the old building and incorporated it here. The new museum offers many things we needed — more dramatic exhibits, contact with nature, interplay with the outdoors, etc. But, I loved the old building.”

While the current museum is significantly bigger than the former one, MMNS is still looking — and needing — to grow. The museum’s exhibit hall is large, but not big enough to accommodate more sizeable exhibits. Tentative plans are in place to expand the exhibit hall to perhaps double its current size so the museum can offer more and bigger exhibits.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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