The Fernbank Museum of Natural History: Atlanta's Window on Nature's Past

The Fernbank Museum of Natural History is one of Atlanta's premier educational and entertainment attractions. The museum is located in the historic Druid Hills area, one of Atlanta's early suburbs and now one of its most exclusive in-town neighborhoods. Other attractions in the area include the Fernbank Science Center, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts and the Carter Center. Fernbank is about ten minutes from both the Interstate 75/85 Downtown Connector and Interstate 285.

The Museum of Natural History sits in the middle of 65-acre Fernbank Forest, the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the country. The 160,000-square-foot museum opened in 1992 with the mission of inspiring the learning of natural history, particularly, though not exclusively, through the context of Georgia's archaeological past. The museum's permanent exhibits include A Walk Through Time in Georgia, First Georgians and Conveyed in Clay, all of which concern Georgia's natural history. Other exhibits, though, include The World of Shells, a beautiful display of shells from around the world; and Reflections of Culture, a comparison of personal artifacts from many different historic and modern cultures. The most popular exhibit by far is Giants of the Mesozoic, which features Argentinosaurus, the largest dinosaur ever found, as well as Gigantosaurus, the largest meat-eater ever found. Frommer's online travel review says that "it's a little hair-raising to walk into the hall and see these beasts towering over the tiny humans below.''

A popular draw at the museum is the IMAX theatre, which shows large-format films on its five-story-high, 72-foot wide screen. The theatre shows a rotating schedule of new and older IMAX films, including the popular Everest. Every Friday throughout the year (except in December), the museum has "Martinis & IMAX,'' which features cocktails, live music, dining and a movie. The event is a Friday night institution in Atlanta and an entertaining way for adults to enjoy the museum.

Fernbank offers other programs, as well, most of them geared toward families and children. Every August, the museum throws a birthday party for their dinosaurs, and every October they have "Bugs, Bats and Bones Day'' to celebrate Halloween in an educational way. Each weekend brings "Weekend Wonders,'' with interactive programs for children. The museum also hosts summer camps every year.

Education and research are part of the museum's mission. Two of their most important programs are UrbanWatch and archaeological research on St. Catherines Island. UrbanWatch Atlanta teaches urban students how to interact with their local environments by participating in projects such as invasive plant removal and replanting of native species. The research on St. Catherines Island, one of Georgia's barrier islands, explores Georgia's Native American and Spanish Colonial history and places them in the context of world history. As the museum's website notes, "The best archaeological research reveals something useful about the lives of people virtually anywhere, and careful study of human skeletons from St. Catherines Island has done just that.''

An official at New York's American Museum of Natural History said of Atlanta's museum, "Fernbank has achieved an enormous amount of prestige in a short amount of time.'' Visitors, however, only rate the museum as "Average'' on most travel websites. "Not worth the money'' is a common complaint, and many think that the collection is small and not too impressive. The dinosaurs are everyone's favorite, and the urban forest is also popular. This visitor sums up the museum, saying, "Overall, it's a decent experience. Nothing `must see' but still a fun time nonetheless.''

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