By Aaron Tanner
Fifty years ago, it was a humble bug collection. Today, it’s a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art, hands-on, fully immersive museum, with more than 62,000 square feet of space dedicated to the study of all aspects of nature.
This is the Cook Museum of Natural Science in Decatur, which opened in June after being closed for three years while the new location was being planned and built. The non-profit museum allows visitors to learn about nature through a vast array of exhibits and interactive experiences, designed to captivate kids of all ages.
In the late 1960s, John Cook Sr. of Cook’s Pest Control started opening his private collection of insects – which until then had been used primarily for employee training – by appointment to various groups in North Alabama. The collection grew to include mounted wildlife, and the original museum opened in 1980 with additional displays of rocks, minerals, fossils and insects.
Children and adults alike enjoy the wonders and mysteries of cave exploring.
In its more than 30 years of existence, what was the Cook’s Natural Science Museum welcomed more than 750,000 visitors. But in 2012, the Cook family was at a crossroads about the future of the old museum after John Cook Sr. died in 2009.
“The Cook family had the museum for so long that they did not want to close it, but they were not sure what to do,” marketing and public relations manager Mike Taylor says.
After extensive market research, in 2015 the decision was made to build a new museum. After closing the old museum in 2016, the Cook family began moving their existing collection into the new museum while acquiring additional artifacts for the new location.
The biggest challenge the new attraction faces is describing the number of new features to those familiar with the original Cook Museum. “It is hard to put the museum into words,” Taylor explains. “You have to come see it.”
All about nature
There are eleven different themed galleries dedicated to the diverse habitats of Alabama, the Southeast, and North America, including a life-size replica of a cave and a mesmerizing collection of rocks and minerals on display from different parts of the world.
North Alabama’s space industry is represented at the new museum with a meteorite from the original location. Visitors can learn about the whooping crane, common at the nearby Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, in the Rivers and Streams Gallery. Meanwhile, the Arctic and Desert Gallery helps the visitor compare and contrast wildlife from those particular regions.
Mr. Cook’s original insect collection, along with hundreds of new species of insects, is available for viewing in the Wonderful World of Insects.
Giant aquariums hold different types of jellyfish and saltwater fish in the Oceans Gallery, while a large beehive stores as many as 60,000 live Italian honey bees. There are even live baby alligators acquired from an alligator reservation in south Alabama along with displays of other various reptiles from North America.
Trained staff members, including an on-site veterinarian, are tasked with treating the live animals humanely. Once the animals outgrow their space in the museum, the museum will release them back into their appropriate habitats.
Keeping kids interested
The museum’s different hands-on exhibits, which include a virtual game that involves balancing the Earth’s atmospheric conditions and a station where you can digitally design a seashell, allow visitors to discover the planet through various ways of learning.
Everyone enjoys getting their hands in the sand in this display.
Photo courtesy Cook Museum
“We put a lot of thought and money into the different types of learning showcased in the different types of exhibits,” says Kara Long, manager of collections and gallery experience. Children can burn off energy by peering inside a life-size beaver lodge, walking on a rope bridge above a replica of a Southeastern forest, or crawling around in the museum’s insect-themed playground.
To get students interested in nature, different classrooms inside the museum will hold various programs to encourage future careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. “Using a child’s internal motivation to explore and learn, we can help them develop an early appreciation, sense of wonder, love, and respect for the natural world that is so awe-inspiring,” Taylor says.
The museum will also host field trips, birthday parties, and sleepovers to encourage children and young students to visit the attraction. “There is already interest from across Alabama who want to take their students on a field trip to our museum,” Taylor says.
The museum also serves as a community center for Decatur, with a cafe and meeting space for events. It will also serve as a regional attraction for north Alabama and the Southeast.
“This museum is a rising tide for North Alabama,” president and board chairman Brian Cook says. “We see this museum as being a significant part of regionalism and are thankful for the many sponsors in North Alabama and beyond who made this museum possible.”
Cook is thankful that his grandfather’s legacy will live on with the new museum. “I recently asked my grandmother if she ever imagined that opening the doors to a few small school groups or Boy Scouts back in 1968 would lead to this,” Cook explains. “She laughed and said, ‘no, I never saw this happening.’”
For more information on the museum, visit www.cookmuseum.org.