A new educational facility planned for downtown Asheville is the latest development in ongoing efforts to make science a key component of the local economy. This summer, the Colburn Earth Science Museum, currently parked in the basement of Pack Place, will pack up its fossils, geodes and gems and move to a more prominent spot in the Wells Fargo Building, alongside Pritchard Park. In the process, it will be reborn as the Asheville Museum of Science.
“This rebranding will allow us to broaden our mission, which includes more than just Earth science,” Executive Director Anna Priest explains. “It also incorporates life science and STEM skills: science, technology, engineering and math. We’ll keep a smaller Colburn Hall of Minerals as a permanent exhibit, to maintain our legacy. However, we’ll add new, exciting, interactive and state-of-the-art exhibits.”
Almost doubling its exhibit and classroom space, the 8,000-square-foot facility enables the museum to pursue ambitious plans, including a Magic Planet Theater displaying planetary and climate data, and a life-size dinosaur replica.
“We’re debating right now between a juvenile T. rex or a triceratops,” she says. “We’re looking at a juvenile one because our ceiling capacity won’t allow us to have a large dinosaur — but also so it’s easier to break it down and set it up in classrooms” for educational presentations.
The revamped museum also plans to offer exhibits representing such diverse disciplines as biology, botany, technology and the humanities, as well as the Earth science fields of meteorology, geology, oceanography and astronomy. The multiyear project will play out in stages.
“We’re going to get our foot in the door and establish our residency there while continuing to make the museum better over the next three years,” Priest explains. “Right now, we’re getting ready to start a full demolition and renovation of the space. We’re planning on opening in the summer, and we’ll be fully operational before our school groups start coming back in the fall semester.”
The expanded focus, notes Priest, is also intended to help address a critical shortfall in practical skills. Although 62 percent of the jobs currently available in North Carolina require STEM skills, only 21 percent of graduating high school students have them, she says.
By exposing more local children to a wide variety of science and technology fields at an early age, she explains, the museum hopes to spark interest in potential career paths.
To bankroll this more comprehensive vision, the science museum needs $1.2 million over the next three years. It already has commitments for more than half that amount, including $400,000 from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. And last month, the Buncombe County commissioners kicked in $50,000 to expedite the move. That, in turn, will enable the Asheville Art Museum and the Diana Wortham Theatre to move into the Colburn Museum’s current space.
With its high-profile new location in a city that’s already a major tourist draw, the science museum aims to reach a much larger, broader audience. Accordingly, both admission and gift shop revenues are projected to increase substantially, giving the institution a more sustainable future.
Meanwhile, relocating to the Wells Fargo Building will offer yet another big advantage. Having The Collider — a nonprofit promoting the development of products and services related to climate change — as a fellow tenant will open the door to innovative climate science collaborations.
“Asheville really has the potential to be a science hub,” Priest believes. “We’ve always placed a lot of effort into our arts and culture, but we have the largest selection of historic climate data in the world here. And that’s exciting!”
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