LAST October, the largest museum for the natural sciences built since the 1930s, and the largest one south of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, opened its doors in Atlanta.
The Fernbank Museum of Natural History is an architecturally stunning blond brick and glass structure set amid 65 acres of protected Georgia forest several miles from downtown.
Inside, the typical exhibits found at most natural history museums - bones, dinosaur skeletons, and other collections enclosed in glass cases - are absent.
This museum takes a different, less "stuffy" approach, using more lifelike exhibits and technology to help explain events, says executive director E. Kay Davis.
Its showcase display, "A Walk Through Time in Georgia," is one example. Visitors stroll through 15 galleries that explore different geographical regions in Georgia and the chronological development of the earth.
"In this natural history museum, unlike others, we're trying to tell the story of natural history ... using Georgia as a stage to tell that story," Dr. Davis says.
The exhibit begins in a theater where visitors watch the Big Bang, which scientists say created the universe, explode on a large screen. In other galleries, computer graphics and videos explain how life developed.
Seven areas recreate Georgia's diverse environment, from the Cumberland Plateau in the northwestern tip of the state to the coastal barrier islands in the southeast.
Each area is complete with fabricated but natural-looking flowers, trees, lichen, and rocks that are found in the region, as well as real but stuffed animals and birds.
Each scene is set in a different season or time of day. In the Okefenokee Swamp on a spring evening, for example, visitors stand on a boardwalk amid cypress trees draped with Spanish moss and see and hear alligators, frogs, and other creatures.
One exhibit in the time walk that elicits the most "oohs" and "aahs" from children and adults is Dinosaur Hall, where seven life-size dinosaurs dwarf visitors, and giant wall murals paint a colorful picture of what the earth looked like during the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic eras.
Other exhibits in the museum include a shell collection; a thousand-gallon aquarium containing a living coral reef; an oval-shaped lobby with a ceiling that lights up with the stars and planets of Georgia's winter sky; and Fantasy Forest, where children learn about nature. One exhibit is located in the museum's floor, which is made up of limestone tiles containing 150-million-year-old fossils from a quarry in Germany.
Plans to develop displays that focus on the story of man and the history of native Americans in Georgia are in the works, Davis says.
Despite its success at attracting visitors, however, some critics charge that the museum, a 160,000-square-foot building, is full of space but short on exhibits. They also question its high-tech approach and use of lifelike exhibits as substitutes for real collections.
But Davis, who says the museum enhances the cultural environment of Atlanta, explains, "We use technology if it helps us to tell the story. We don't shy away from it just because it's a natural history museum." In addition, unlike many established natural history museums, Fernbank lacked major artifact collections to build its displays around.
"In 50 years we hope it will be one of the great natural history museums in the country," says Mary Stimmel, community relations manager.