The little mineral museum off I-75 in Cartersville used to be a destination for the school bus set, the best place in Georgia to touch a geode, walk through a cave and make it home by the last bell. It was popular but small, with room enough for a tyrannosaurus skull but not for the rest of rex.
Then came the big ideas and the big donations, and the little museum reopened earlier this year as Tellus: Northwest Georgia Science Museum, with room enough for several dinosaurs, plus old cars, aircraft, spacecraft, human-sized rocks and multiple classrooms. The entire contents of the old museum fit into one of four new galleries.
The museum opened in a period of starving cultural institutions, but it’s preparing for a busy school year and more growth. A partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to be announced today will bring more artifacts to its new space. Officials expect to crack the first-year attendance goal of 150,000 visits this month.
Museum director Jose Santamaria said his staff has grown from fewer than 20 to more than 75, and they’re busier than ever.
“Some days,” he said, “we’ll see a thousand kids before lunch.”
Asked for his favorite thing about the new museum — the observatory, the airplane cockpit or the hands-on physics activities in the children’s area? — he answers appreciatively, “The museum.”
9,000 square feet to 120,000
Santamaria was there when it was William Weinman Mineral Museum, a 9,000-square-foot space opened in 1983 to preserve and teach about minerals, rocks, gemstones and fossils. Weinman was a favorite among schoolchildren and “rockhounds” who loved its hands-on offerings and extensive collection.
The museum drew 25,000 visits per year but never caught on with tourists and families — everyone saw the sign on the expressway, but rarely did they stop. Meanwhile, school groups packed the museum during the week and were often turned away because the space couldn’t accommodate them.
Museum officials began to think bigger in early 2003. If thousands of school kids would come to Cartersville to see rocks, what would bring more of them? A planetarium? A dinosaur? A spaceship?
An anonymous foundation paid $14 million for land and the new 120,000-square-foot building. The Weinman museum’s longevity generated early support from the community, although some were reluctant to let go of the little museum when it closed in 2007 for reconstruction.
Georgia Museums Inc. raised another $4 million to pay for new exhibitions — digital projection in the planetarium, rooms full of prehistoric skeletons, a gallery of transportation history, from bicycles to a replica Apollo 1 capsule — all designed to fit state school standards. They named it Tellus, for the earth goddess of Roman mythology. The doors opened on Jan. 12, even as the finishing touches were going on the Wright flyer and a new apatosaurus.
Still, big museum projects are risky. Even surrounded by large school districts and successful cultural institutions, SciTrek, the Science and Technology Museum of Atlanta, closed abruptly in 2004 after 16 years of struggling with money, attendance and exhibit quality.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History experienced a flood of visitors when it opened in 1992, but attendance dropped as it gained a reputation in the mid-1990s for being beautiful but empty. It fell deeply into debt and nearly closed, until banks, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and a successful fund-raising campaign brought dinosaurs — and visitors — to the museum.
In its first year, Tellus hasn’t seen similar problems, said Seth Hopkins, executive director for Georgia Museums, the nonprofit that runs the museum. The galleries appear full, and there’s still room for indoor and outdoor exhibitions on caves, alternative energy and trees. Memberships and visits are outpacing the original goals.
$2 million to go
Although Tellus is more stable than many recession-era museums, it has challenges ahead. It has $2 million more to raise for its capital campaign. It hasn’t been open long enough to qualify for American Association of Museums accreditation, which can draw more donor support. It has relatively little temporary exhibition space, which could keep out blockbuster attractions known for drawing new visitors.
The Smithsonian affiliation will add to displays and programming, though. Of 15,000 museums in the United States, 164 are Smithsonian partners with access to its artifacts and expertise; they’re museums that can care for objects as well as the Smithsonian can. Atlanta has four of them. Cartersville, with about 20,000 residents, has two.
“Even though they’re a new entity, they have a wonderful facility, an excellent staff,” Smithsonian Affiliations director Harold Closter said of Tellus. “It’s an asset to the community, something we respect very much for taking that on.”
The location surprises some visitors who expect they’ll have to go to Atlanta or Chattanooga for all-day family entertainment, but museum officials say their location outside the cities plays to their greatest strength — education programming. For many districts too far out to be called “metro” anything, Tellus is an easy field trip just minutes off the interstate.
Peggy Cowan, director of curriculum and instruction for Cartersville City School System, said many districts cut back on trips to city museums as the economy worsened and gas prices grew, but they’ll send students to Tellus.
“We’ve lowered the four walls of the classroom,” Cowan said of the 4,000-student district that neighbors the museum.
“It’s one thing to read about something in a book, but to actually see the bones of that dinosaur, the bones of that sea creature, to see that old car, to touch a geode — that adds dimension to our classroom instruction that we could never replace.”
Even on a recent sleepy weekday between school starting and field trip season, a father and teenage daughter from Acworth panned for gold, grandparents from Atlanta played with their visiting granddaughter and a mother from Washington, D.C., chased her kids through a hall of dinosaur bones.
“There’s room for everybody,” Santamaria, the director, said. “It never ceases to thrill me to see a family here for most of the day.”
Want to go? Tellus: Northwest Georgia Science Museum, 100 Tellus Dr., Cartersville. $8-$12, free for members and active military. 770-606-5700, www.tellusmuseum.org.