The North Carolina Estuarium is on a mission to educate
With three museums in one, the N.C. Estuarium is teaching visitors about the importance of the local estuary and how they can make decisions to help preserve it.Posted — Updated
Once inside, however, the building gives way to the experience of the thoughtful educational exhibits and learning opportunities for those interested in the cultural history and marine life of the second largest estuary in the United States.
Little Washington is at the brackish point of the Pamlico River and Atlantic Ocean, where saltwater and freshwater converge. Combined with the charm and history of this pre-Civil War shipbuilder's city, these characteristics make Washington a unique and ideal location for a marine museum dedicated to this important natural sanctuary.
"The Estuarium has been a true visitor attraction in Washington since it opened in 1998, but in the last few years local tourism has significantly grown with people coming to explore the beautiful waterfront and newly vibrant food-and-drink scene," said David Clegg, chairman of the Board of the Partnership for the Sounds. "The Estuarium is an essential complement to this growth, since it describes why the Pamlico River is such a special cultural and economic mainstay and why the community is committed to its stewardship."
In fact, the Estuarium experienced its highest visitation in over a decade in the year before the pandemic, and had been trending increasingly upwards until the pandemic hit. Since then, they've incorporated remote and virtual programs to increase their outreach.
But there is traffic once again, as the museum saw its busiest summer months in June and July of 2021.
With more than 200 exhibits from artifacts to artwork, the Estuarium is really three museums in one. There is a small aquarium focused on local marine life, a cultural history and heritage museum, and a hands-on science museum, all together in one building.
A massive sculpture in the lobby is actually an interactive map of North Carolina built out of driftwood. This sculpture was designed to allow staff and volunteers to show visitors how rain water moves through the estuary. Each presenter gets to tell their own story about the water, although popular lore suggests that the water we drink today could possibly have been Cleopatra's tears millennia ago.
Visitors then get a glimpse of the area's indigenous plants and animals before moving into an exhibit on climate science and pollution.
In the first part, they learn what is special about the estuary. In the second part, they can see what happens when the area is not properly cared for, like when invasive species are introduced to an ecosystem like the one around the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. The hope is that visitors realize the uniqueness of the estuary and work to preserve it in the daily decisions they make.
"There are so many choices we make that impact the life of the estuary, from eating local seafood to preserving water," said Russ Chesson, the former environmental educator at the Estuarium. "We show visitors what these choices can lead to and why the estuary is important to consider when making them."
More than 75% of the seafood we eat at some point came from an estuary, and while estuaries are vastly productive ecosystems, they are also incredibly delicate. While the calm waters provide a safer environment for sea life than the open ocean, which allows many plants and animals to thrive there, the location of estuaries downhill means that pollution tends to accumulate there.
"The estuary is a barometer for the health of the state," said Chesson. "It provides everything from storm abatement, to food, to nurseries for baby fish and sea life."
The Estuarium's efforts to show visitors the uniqueness of the estuary and to educate them on how they can preserve what they see is a vital mission. This mission begins with outreach to local students — the Estuarium offers field trips and educational programs based on state science standards.
The program has drawn schools from Raleigh to Hatteras for these learning experiences.
Since starting the program, the Estuarium has slightly retooled it to focus more specifically on the animals that depend on a healthy body of water. As things begin to open back up after the pandemic, Clegg hopes to increase the amount of programs available.
"Our goal is to help students better understand why people need to take care of the ecosystem, and once we fully emerge from the pandemic, we will begin hosting a series of culinary-related programs using both seafood from the estuary and a variety of other locally-grown items," said Clegg. "We're calling the series 'Estuary-Yum!'"
From economic benefits and eco-tourism to educational opportunities and cultural events, Eastern North Carolina is no longer just a drive-through on the way to the Outer Banks, but an invaluable asset to the promotion of an important part of the state's—and the country's—natural resources.
"Since the facility opened, the community embraced it as a meeting place, a backdrop for social occasions, as well as a scientific, educational and cultural showcase. The community is invested in the facility as seen through the financial support of individuals, businesses and industries," said Clegg. "Recently, a guest told me this is one of the best small museums she's seen anywhere in America, so there's a lot to be proud of. But we also know it's time to update our exhibitry to become more technologically sophisticated and interactive. We will be launching a major fundraising campaign soon to help us grow and meet a new generation of visitors."
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