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Where the wild Things Are.

Mississippi's Museum of Natural Science lets visitors learn hands-on about the wonders of our state's natural surroundings.

The 'Mississippi Museum of Natural Science glints architectural beauty in the' Saturday afternoon sun, stands serene against a lush background of Jackson's flora, which is wellgroomed and green, native to the region.

Inside the museum, plants native to the entire state flourish, in fixed habitats ranging from coast to plains; river to swamp.

Children and adults flourish inside as well. They wander the museum's large (73,000 square foot) interior, learn hands-on about fish scales and bird-watching and art. They stare into over 100,000 gallons of water, squinting to watch things like gulf sturgeon, catfish, turtles, and snakes.

"The kids are fascinated by everything-they want to touch everything," says Stephanie Beach of her children, Garrett (who's 6) and Reagan (who's 3). They're up from Monroe, Louisiana, and are in Jackson for the weekend.

"Holey moley!" says Garrett, upon sight of the alligator snapping turtle, who's housed in the "swamp," a 1700 square foot greenhouse.

"I believe you could ride him," says his father Jeff Beach, and it's true. The turtle, motionless in the water, seems bigger than little Garrett and his sister combined. They stare, utterly fascinated by this Spartan amphibian, bigger than life in front of them.

The museum's mission is to promote an understanding and appreciation of Mississippi's biological diversity, says director Libby Hartfield.

"We try to inspire people to have a respect for the environment of this state," she says.

The museum is not new, having been around since 1932, but its present location is.

"That's one of the wonderful things about having a history," says Hartfield. "Everything's grown through the years. We were building bigger and better, and we knew that would be successful because we had already done it on a smaller scale."

The museum moved into its home on Riverside Drive a little over a year ago, having transferred from its previous location downtown by the fairgrounds.

"We're very into environmental education, and you need an outdoor area to do that," says Hartfield of their present location. Prior to moving, the museum's staff had occasionally taken advantage of the outdoor facilities at LeFleur's Bluff

State Park, where the museum is now located.

"It got to where we were running over here every month for something," Hartfield says. The museum's staff was also running all over the place to fulfill its outdoor needs.

Sixth grade science teacher Janice Larson remembers those days. She and her then fourth grade class were studying habitats and food chains, so she asked museum staff to help set up a field trip with her. They ended up going to Mayes Lake to identify invertebrates and to talk about food chains.

"It was fantastic," says Larson of the trip, and of the museum in general. "Some of the biologists got in with a huge seine-they actually wore waders-so we could look at the food chains," she explains. That day, they did water studies to determine oxygen content of the water. And, with the living organisms they found, they discovered that they were able to determine water quality.

It was hands-on learning for students and teacher alike.

"Even adults go away from the museum with an understanding of and appreciation for what we have in this state, and the vast diversity of life and habitats, and how well they all work together," says Larson, who is also a museum volunteer.

You don't have to be a science enthusiast to appreciate the museum, but it doesn't hurt.

David Scott, 12, is in Jackson from Long Beach with his parents, Traci and Kyle.

"I did this when I was in the sixth grade," explains his mother of their trip to the capital city. They've visited the Old Capitol Museum and the governor's mansion so far, but David is partial to the Natural Science Museum.

"His favorite subject is science, Traci explains.

"They've got this huge catfish," says David. "Did you see it?"

It would be hard to miss. This catfish is as big as a grown woman's torso. Its lips are bigger than an adult's thumbs.

"This aquarium system is about ten times what it was in the old building," says director Hartfield. "I'm proud that they so accurately represent the habitats they're intended to represent." What they've done is actually bring in natural elements from various habitats, including the Pearl River and Pickwick Lake. "There's a science and an art to it," says Hartfield. "You want it to be aesthetically pleasing, but then the science has to be just right."

Indeed, art and science overlap in many layers here at the museum. In the Dragonfly Environmental Learning Center, there is a dry erase board and various art supplies, so that kids can come in and, say, draw a flower. There are also a couple of classrooms attached, so that visiting groups can schedule hands-on learning lessons from museum staff.

There is also sometimes a display of art in the exhibit gallery downstairs, which houses revolving art and hands-on exhibits.

Right now (and through Oct. 28), the museum has a Walter Anderson exhibit, which features more than 60 images on display, lent by the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs. Photography by Dr. Donald Bradburn of New Orleans supplements Anderson's watercolors, drawings, and block prints.

As a way to help people understand more about Anderson and his work, the museum shows a short film on the artist three times a day upstairs in the Rotwein Theater, which can accommodate up to 200 people.

Next on tap? Mississippi photographer Steve Kirkpatrick's photographs. The exhibit will be of wildlife and nature from all over the state, and will be called "Wilder Mississippi."

Apropos for the museum, which chronicles not only current biological diversity via its aquariums and "swamp," but also the diversity of nature in the past.

Examples of over 300,000 fossils, insects, plants, and more are housed in the museum, and on display for all to study. Of particular note is the state's official fossil (like the state bird or state flower). It's a Zygorhiza, a.k.a. Ziggy the whale.

"It is the most complete Zygorhiza whale found anywhere in the world," says Hartfield. She says that the reason the museum's Ziggy fossil is so good is because it has a complete skull. "When you think of something being 40 thousand years old and in this good shape, it's amazing."

Researchers from all over the world come to observe Ziggy, who is in good company, surrounded by other fossils, birds, and mammals. There is also a research library of about 10,000 volumes, available for seekers of all ages. Make an appointment and expect to get personal help from museum staff with any project on tap, if you want it.

It comes down to wanting to learn about Mississippi's natural environment.

"Mississippi has such a rich natural heritage," says Hartfield. "There are so many things that share the state with us. That's important for people to remember."

These lessons are only two of the many valuable pieces of information that patrons will pick up when they visit the Museum of Natural Science, and they can be assured that fun will accompany their learning.
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Title Annotation:Mississippi Museum of Natural Science
Author:HERRING, ALLISON
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:1210
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