Raleigh, N.C. — Betsy Bennett, the visionary force behind the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said Friday that she will retire at the end of the year.
Bennett has headed the museum for more than two decades and has led its transformation from a collection of cramped exhibits into a landmark institution in downtown Raleigh that links students and other visitors to scientists around the globe.
"North Carolina’s natural resources have always been a national treasure, and here at the museum, our mission of sharing a deeper understanding of our natural world has been realized a hundred times over," Bennett said in a statement. "I leave this place with a touch of sadness but no regrets. We now have a sustainable institution with talented and committed leadership and staff and with unlimited potential."
Bennett's final achievement was the opening of the $56 million Nature Research Center in April. The 80,000-square-foot education center features a 70-foot-diameter globe outside and more than 100 interactive exhibits inside on everything from weather to undersea exploration to DNA testing and a multimedia area that can broadcast scientific research to every school in North Carolina.
"With the opening of the Nature Research Center, my work is close to complete," she said. "With the help of the state of North Carolina, the private sector, a devoted staff and so many generous individuals, we have built a world-renowned center for the study of our state and our world. What a tremendous gift to the people of North Carolina."
In the two months since the Nature Research Center has opened, more than 300,000 people have visited the science museum, she said, and the museum could top 1 million visitors by the end of the year.
"In my time at the museum, we have played host to visitors from every county in the state, every state in the nation and from all over the world," she said.
The 68-year-old Alabama native taught middle school and high school math and science before getting into the museum business at Discovery Place in Charlotte in 1979.
After six years of managing exhibits and writing grant proposals there – she was a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board at the same time – she served as a consultant to the Triangle Children's Museum in Chapel Hill for a couple of years before taking the reins at the Museum of Natural Sciences in 1990.
Bennett spent her first decade in Raleigh designing a new home for the science museum, which was housed for decades in a state agriculture building, and lining up exhibits to showcase North Carolina, including a $3 million dinosaur skeleton. She lobbied for a series of appropriations from the General Assembly and doggedly raised enough money through foundation grants and private donations to open a $71 million museum downtown in 2000.
The new museum quickly became a routine field trip for schools statewide, and it started making Top 10 lists of natural history centers in North America.
Bennett wasn't finished, though, and quickly set to work with supporters on plans for the Nature Research Center.
“The building of a museum is a never-ending work," she said in her retirement announcement, quoting science museum founder H.H. Brimley.
The new wing to the museum is part of a larger project that includes offices for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and officials decided to name the skywalk over Salisbury Street linking the two parts the Betsy M. Bennett Bridge to Discovery.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, who was in office for much of the time that Bennett worked on the first museum building, called her "a force of nature" in dedicating the skywalk in her honor last year.
DENR Secretary Dee Freeman and the Friends of the Museum board have formed a committee to conduct a national search for Bennett's successor. Mike Murphy, the chairman of Friends of the Museum, will lead the committee.
"I have given my all to this great enterprise. We have an awesome team, and I am certain the future is exceptionally bright for this museum," Bennett said. "A big piece of my heart will always be right here at the museum.”