Finding Fernbank still a challenge for locals

Fernbank Science Center had a roller coaster week. The 45-year-old science education facility spent several days on the chopping block -- a potential victim of budget cuts -- before it was spared by the DeKalb County School Board.  Though funding concerns are ongoing, the center is safe for now, but the public outcry -- reflected in online petitions, blog posts and comments -- highlighted another longstanding problem: Fernbank has an identify crisis.

For decades, stargazers have shown up at Fernbank Museum to see a solar eclipse they planned to view through the Science Center's telescope. Wedding guests arrive at the Fernbank Science Center, only to miss the bride and groom's arrival at the museum.  More than a few school buses have deposited children at one Fernbank for a field trip taking place at the other. And one media outlet reporting on the institutions simply collapsed them into one, renaming it the "Fernbank Science Museum."

"We have definitely had a long battle with people being confused and sometimes it can be kind of humorous," said Brandi Berry, spokeswoman for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. But frustrated patrons are no laughing matter, she said. "Right now it is alarming because we keep hearing from our own patrons that we are closing and we’re not," Berry said. "This is our 20th anniversary and we are trying to celebrate. That could possibly hurt donations and memberships if they think we aren’t going to be around."

It is frustrating for the struggling Science Center as well, which has in some ways been overshadowed by its newer, glitzier cousin 1.4 miles down the road. For patrons, the heart of the confusion is the Fernbank name, which refers to the broader community that is home to both organizations as well as Fernbank Elementary School. For the institutions, the confusion reflects a complex relationship established decades ago.

In 1988, several years before the Fernbank Museum of Natural History made its debut, then director Kay Davis commented on just how confusing Fernbank has been. "People in Atlanta have never really understood Fernbank," said Davis in the Atlanta Constitution. "We've spent all our time designing the museum. Maybe we should have spent more time telling our story."

The story began a century earlier in 1881 when Col. Zador D. Harrison purchased 140 acres of woodland west of Decatur. His daughter, Emily Harrison, a budding conservationist, named it Fernbank after the ferns growing on the creek banks.

When her father died in 1935, Harrison feared the encroaching development would subdivide Fernbank, so she enlisted the help of Emory professor Woolford Baker to raise funds to buy the land. In 1939, Fernbank, Inc. purchased the land from Harrison for $35,000.

The trustees of Fernbank, Inc. established programs including a natural history museum and a petting zoo that failed for lack of funding. Then, in the 1960s, Fernbank trustee and US congressman, Jamie Mackey and DeKalb County school officials obtained federal education funds to build the Fernbank Science Center. Fernbank, Inc. deeded four acres to the schools on which the center could be built and agreed to lease the forest for 48 years. The lease expired this year, putting the forest under the stewardship of Fernbank, Inc.

In 1967, the Fernbank Science Center opened with the goal of building science literacy through exhibits, instruction and other experiences. Visitors can view a range of taxidermy including birds and animals native to Georgia. Pythons and boa constrictors slither in display cases. Honeybees buzz around a hive. Part of the Apollo 6 space shuttle sits just across from a pictorial display of the Tuskegee Airmen. The forest serves as a living laboratory for visitors to examine flora and fauna, while the observatory is reported to have the largest telescope in the southeast. Experts in fields ranging from biology to astronomy teach DeKalb school children everything from sex education to space missions.

As one of 13 centers built in a national pilot program, the Fernbank Science Center is the only one that still exists, said a Science Center spokesperson.  Other than a nominal fee for the planetarium, entry to Fernbank Science Center is free. At its height, the center reportedly hosted more than 800,000 visitors per year. Recent estimates are closer to 160,000. Staffing has been dramatically reduced and the $4.7 million in funding is the same as it was in 2004.

Part of the Fernbank confusion is generational. Anyone 20 years or older who recalls trips to Fernbank  is referring to Fernbank Science Center. City transplants or younger Atlantans are more likely to think of Fernbank, the museum.

Fernbank, Inc. had always planned to open a museum, said Berry. Over several years, trustees collected millions in donations to make it happen. By the late '80s, the $45 million project was revealed. The private, non-profit Fernbank Museum of Natural History opened in 1992 with a mission to encourage life-long learning of natural history through special exhibits and programming. Permanent exhibitions and programming focus on dinosaurs, Georgia natural history, native American and international culture, public lectures, a star gallery and the Fernbank Forest. There is also an IMAX theater. Museum entry ranges from $15.50 to $17.50, and IMAX shows are $11 to $13.

In the early years, the institutions worked closely, said a spokesperson for the Science Center --  center employees served as early museum staffers -- but the one area in which they differed was revenue. The museum was designed to make money, the Science Center was not. An underlying, if unspoken, tension arose, the spokesperson said. And it is exacerbated by a public that still isn't quite sure which Fernbank is which.

Both institutions have tried to offset confusion by using the full name when communicating with the public, but its hard to reinforce when even signage on Ponce de Leon Ave., the main street off of which both are located, directs drivers to "Fernbank Science Center Museum" which to passerby reads like one location.

It may just be another unresolvable quirk of life in metro Atlanta -- where all roads lead to Peachtree and all science happens at Fernbank.