For years, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences has offered a Naturalist Center for older kids to explore snake skins, taxidermied animals and other specimens from across the state.
Tucked away on the fourth floor of the museum, the center for kids ages 8 and up was never a major attraction, drawing about 45 visitors a day.
But, in April, when the museum opened up its new wing - the state-of-the-art Nature Research Center - the hands-on gallery with more than 10,000 specimens got a much bigger and more visible home.
The Naturalist Center now sits on the second floor of the new wing. The open, airy space full of windows is 60 percent bigger than the old space. And it's drawing many more visitors - as many as 134 people in a single hour on one busy Saturday.
"In my opinion, [it's] one of the coolest parts of the museum," said Alex Morrison, who works there and recently showed me around. "This is a hands-on gallery. We love for people to come to pick up and touch stuff here."
Like the old space, the Naturalist Center features drawers and tables full of everything from butterflies to animal skeletons. Visitors can sit down and spend as much time as they want exploring what's inside the drawers and talking with center staff about what they've found.
I'm told museum staff continue to move pieces from the old space to the new one. And they also welcome visitors bringing in things that they've found in their own neighborhood for identification and information.
The bigger space means the museum can offer more at the Naturalist Center. Two additions are the so-called magic tables, which Morrison describes as virtually interactive field guides.
Visitors can select from a variety of specially tagged specimens, which they lay down on one of the tables. The tables recognize the tags and turn into a giant touch screen where you can pull up all kinds of interesting information - from a description of what the piece is to the sounds it would have made to where it lives and much more. With a touch of your finger, you can pick and choose what you want to know about the piece.
The new space also includes a small area that accommodates children younger than 8. Morrison said the Naturalist Center's age requirements are enforced for safety reasons. Some specimens are in jars of formaldehyde or alcohol.
"We would like everybody to be able to come in," she said. "We love creating little scientists, but we do have that age limit for safety reasons."
The new activity area for younger kids, which sits towards the back of the Naturalist Center, includes books, puzzles, games and specimens that are safe for younger kids to play with.
The new space means that if you come with your 12-year-old and your four-year-old, your older child can still spend time on the magic tables or talking with staff about the snake skin he found. One note: Kids 11 years or younger still must have a chaperone in the Naturalist Center, Morrison said. So, in some cases, a visit to the Naturalist Center may require a couple of adults for supervising young ones in the special activity area and older ones in the rest of the space.
The Naturalist Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday and Monday. Like admission to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the Nature Research Center, it's free. Click here for details and watch my video interview with Morrison.