Written by Hannah Saulters | Photographed by Joe Ellis
For years, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science has been a staple of field trips and family excursions.
While the permanent exhibits and aquariums might seem familiar to many a school-age child (or their parents and teachers), there is much more to the LeFleur’s Bluff-based museum than just the two-headed snake, one of their most notable attractions (appropriately dubbed Two-Head by the research biologists).
Founded in the mid-1930s, the museum began at the behest of Fannye Cook, a biologist who returned to Mississippi after working at the Smithsonian. At that time, Mississippi had no laws protecting the environment or wildlife.
A pioneer in conservation biology, Cooke started a campaign to create and implement laws protecting Mississippi’s ecology, securing funding from the Works Progress Administration to survey the state’s flora and fauna. The museum followed, housed under the Game and Fish Commission, now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
In its early days, the museum relocated around Jackson fairly frequently. According to current museum director Charles Knight, the fourth in the museum’s history to hold that title, “At first it was a traveling museum in a sort of truck,” before relocating to the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s current campus, near the fairgrounds and the capital. Finally, it found its home on LeFleur’s Bluff in the early 1990s. Like most museums, its mission is twofold: to conduct research and to educate the public.
Housing over one-million specimens, the space welcomes over 100,000 visitors throughout the year.
Since Knight started at the museum in 1993 as a fish biologist, the museum’s methods of engaging students and families have shifted from a more standard model to be more interactive. “I’ve always thought of museums in a traditional way, where people walk through a quiet gallery and view things and read,” he says. “Now, we get animals out on the floor and let people see them up close.”
Even with the “traditional” exhibits, the curatorial team strives to tell a story, creating a context with detailed habitat, plant life and even lighting. It’s an effort Knight takes seriously, recognizing “it can be difficult for a scientist to bridge the gap” of transforming data into narrative.
Viewing his role as translator, Knight has made it his mission to “present information in a way that anyone can understand it. It’s sometimes a challenge, but it’s really fun for me.”
One of the best ways to interact with the material curated in the museum is actually to go outside, walking the two and a half miles of trails, which cross through several habitats. Hikers can see ecological diversity firsthand as they make their way from the bluff to the swamp and the Pearl River.
Perhaps even more significant than the interactive and educational elements, are the research projects taking place behind the scenes. Half of the museum’s 40-member staff is made up of research biologists, furthering the institution’s mission of conserving the state’s environmental legacy.
Some projects are statewide, like the decades-long recovery of the bear population; in less than 30 years, bear numbers have grown from 25 to over 200 thanks in large part raising awareness about land management. Other research is hyper-local, taking place in the state park’s own 300-acres, a case-study in conservation in an urban setting, leading to projects like river cleanup.
As the Pearl River recedes after its annual flood, Knight explains, it leaves behind trash and debris. “Not only do we have staff that are passionate about going out there and cleaning things up, but we also have volunteer groups that clean it up for us. Sometimes they don’t even tell us that they’re going to, they just go out there on their own!”
This level of engagement is exactly what Knight loves to see, among both volunteers and visitors.
“I want them to come and have fun and feel inspired. They don’t have to remember the name of everything they saw, but I want them to walk away feeling like, ‘I didn’t know we had that in the state and I want to help make it last forever.’”