By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
With spring break holidays happening this month, many vacationers may be opting to remain close to home and wait for the light at the end of the pandemic to draw nearer.
Rather than heading to crowded beaches or taking a long driving trip to mountains states away, why not check out some exciting places to learn and grow close to home.
The Cook Museum of Natural Science, in Decatur, has a storied history offering opportunities to spark kids’ excitement about the natural world.
The recently revamped and reopened facility is about a 1½-hour car ride away, past Cullman and on the way to Huntsville.
Inside its walls, Cook offers nine exhibit halls that create an immersive experience crafted to allow kids to explore, interact with and learn about the natural environment close to home and in the far reaches of the world.
Guests will learn through the interactive exhibits and activities about different animals, space, rocks and minerals, caves, rivers, the arctic, insects and more.
According to Executive Director Scott Mayo, visitors should allow between one and two hours for kids to explore.
“I have two granddaughters,” he said. “One is 7 and the other is 4. The 7-year-old can read and wants to show me that she can read everything in the exhibits. My 4½-year-old is running from one interactive to another.
“Both of them will get out of there in anywhere from 1 to 1½ hours and have two totally different experiences,” he said.
One of the most popular features, located in the Foundations exhibit, is a Kinetic sand table. Using a hi-tech software program, the interactive display on the kinetic sand presents different biomes found around the world.
“In the Pacific Northwest, if you make the mountains a certain height, you will make precipitation or they will be snowcapped up top,” Mayo said. “If you hollow out the top, you’ll get a really cool volcano.”
In other biomes, you can create rain and allow crops to grow.
“That is the one place in the museum where kids cry when mom says we have to move on to the next exhibit,” Mayo said.
To keep things COVID safe, guests are able to sanitize their hands at specified stations before and after using the table, or they can wear gloves.
Mayo noted that kids also are consistently in awe of the museum’s 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, home to a variety of marine life including Kale, the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
“He is a crowd favorite, he’s just so stinking cute,” Mayo said. “Among all of the fish in the tank, he is truly the life and star of the show.”
In the Forests exhibit, kids can climb a life-sized tulip poplar tree and explore its “squirrel’s nest.”
A lot of thought went into conceptualizing each exhibit feature, Mayo noted, as well as fine-tuning since the museum’s opening in the summer of 2019 and throughout the pandemic.
The former head of a Decatur private school, Mayo was an avid volunteer for Cook’s before it was transformed into the facility it is today.
It began from a touring display of John Cook Sr.’s, of Cook’s Pest Control, collection of insects. In the 1980s, it grew into a small museum featuring collections of rocks, fossils, coral, federally protected migratory birds and other creatures.
“They had a bunch of animals that they used for educational shows,” he said. “I would come in a couple of times a week in the morning to do things like feed crickets to the lizards.”
The museum was closed in 2016 while the space was being reinvented. As the facility neared its opening date in 2019, Mayo was asked to assume the role of executive director. He said it was the right timing, as he had been considering a career change after spending 26 years in education.
After some soft openings for school groups, the museum opened officially in summer 2019. When schools reopened in the fall, it gave staff time to work out kinks in the flow of the museum.
“We got out there to January and February (2020) and were starting to really just ramp up,” Mayo said. “We had found our stride with school groups.”
They also began adding in “Fun Days,” which took place on Saturdays and offered themed educational lessons and experiences, such as dissections, demos and animal encounters.
The first Fun Day, in January 2020, was attended by 1,500 people. The second, in February, drew about 1,800 attendees.
“That’s really full for the museum,” Mayo said.
To combat crowding in the exhibit halls, tickets were limited to 50 entrances every 15 minutes.
“Obviously, we were watching the news,” Mayo said. “We get to early March and had a number of things scheduled, including a wedding reception in the facility’s event space.”
Days before Gov. Kay Ivey made the shutdown official, Cook’s closed to the public and remained that way for the two-month mandated shutdown. The museum was closed for an additional two months to allow workers to do some housekeeping.
“We learned a lot in those months that we were open,” Mayor said. “We learned that we needed to tweak some things. We had some improvements we needed to make and had some fairly major changes on a couple of the aquariums.”
Amid that closure, the museum welcomed one of its prized residents, the sea turtle donated by the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.
“We had to go pick him up, bring him back, and we had to quarantine for a number of weeks,” Mayo said. “Then he was moved to his current home in the 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, where we needed to quarantine him again before we could make the reveal. These are live animals, and anything could happen.
“Once we had him here and we knew that he was fine, while we were still closed to the public, that’s when we started hyping up our reopening,” Mayo added.
It was a slow start when they revved back up, as schools were avoiding field trips and the pandemic continued to rage on.
So, the museum adapted and began offering a new form of educational classes. They reached out to kids who were homeschooling and virtually learning, offering 1½-hour educational classes covering specific topics such as dissection, biomes and weather.
“When we first rolled those out in September, the demand was high,” he said. “Part of it was, given the COVID restrictions on occupancy, we could only put 15 kids in a 25-person classroom.” With the reduced class size, they were consistently selling out.
“That’s really where we survived until probably about the first of this month,” Mayo said.
In March, as spring breakers around the Midwest and Southeast took advantage of the break to travel, a switch was flipped.
“Our weekend crowds started growing,” Mayo said.
In addition, the phone in the staff offices began ringing off the hook with schools organizing field trips through the remainder of the spring and even into fall.
The first Fun Day since shutdowns, dubbed Amphibian Day, was “phenomenal,” Mayo said.
“It was nowhere near what it used to be but, relatively speaking, it felt like old times,” he said.
In mid-March, Mayo and his staff were pleased to see license plates from states including Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri filling the parking lot.
Special day camps have been added on holiday weekends and weekdays and have been quickly selling out. These give kids the opportunity to get behind-the-scenes access to the facility in small groups.
For more information and to plan your day trip to Decatur, visit cookmuseum.org.
For more nearby museums, check out our listing here.