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Fernbank Museum’s Visionary Founder, Emily Harrison

In the late 1800s, a young woman saw an irreplaceable treasure in the vastly shrinking woodlands of Atlanta. Ahead of her time, perhaps, this conservation-minded environmentalist led the charge to preserve 65 acres of forest in the shadows of city expansion and neighborhood development.

The legacy of Emily Harrison, visionary founder of Fernbank, still thrives through the conservation work and science education of Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The Museum’s mission includes an ongoing commitment to Fernbank Forest, which was purchased by Ms. Harrison and the Trustees of Fernbank, Inc. Today, at 65 acres, Fernbank Forest is the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the country.

Harrison spent countless hours in the forest surrounding her home just east of Atlanta. A naturalist from an early age, she loved the forest and thrived on learning about the plants and animals around her. One of Harrison's favorite spots was a creek bank covered by a variety of ferns. Inspired by the profusion of ferns, she called the preserve "Fernbank," a name which was publicly recognized by the late 1930s as an educational treasure.

As an adult, Harrison dreamed of maintaining Fernbank as a "school in the woods" for future generations to study nature. In 1939, Harrison and Dr. Woolford Baker, a biologist at Emory University, led a group of 15 "conservation-minded environmentalists" to establish Fernbank, Inc. with the intent to purchase and preserve the 65 acres of old-growth woodland she was inspired by as a child.

“A School in the Woods”—Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Fernbank Museum of Natural History may be the only natural history museum to “grow” out of natural area. After nearly 100 years of inspiration and decades of planning, ground was broken in 1989 for a natural history museum that would fulfill Ms. Harrison’s dream of a “school in the woods” and inspire future generations of naturalists and scientists.

Built along the border of the forest to preserve the integrity of the undisturbed woodlands, Fernbank Museum of Natural History officially opened to the public on October 5, 1992, becoming one of the only museums in the world to literally grow out of a forest. Fernbank Museum, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, is one of the most popular and iconic cultural attractions in Atlanta, serving nearly a half-million visitors each year. Fernbank continues to serve as a school in the woods while fulfilling a mission to inspire life-long learning of natural history through immersive programming and unmatched experiences that encourage a greater appreciation of our planet and its inhabitants.

The Fernbank Name: Forest, Museum, Science Center

The original Trustees of Fernbank, Inc. led a massive effort to keep this natural area undisturbed, generating interest from other organizations for partnerships. In the early 1960s, Fernbank Trustees entered a partnership with the DeKalb County School System to allow DeKalb teachers use of the forest to teach biological sciences. As part of a temporary lease agreement, DeKalb County in return would fence the forest and begin a security and maintenance program. As outlined in the agreement decades earlier, the 48-year lease expired after the close of the 2012 school year. At that time, stewardship of and programming in Fernbank Forest returned to the Museum.

The partnership between DeKalb County and Fernbank Inc. also allowed for Fernbank Trustees to deed four acres of land adjoining the forest to the School System for the construction of a science center, which opened in 1967 as Fernbank Science Center to offer science programs to DeKalb teachers and students.

Fernbank Science Center, which is a unit of and funded by the DeKalb County School System, is not formally affiliated with Fernbank, Inc. or Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The two organizations continue to inspire future generations of scientists while offering programs for DeKalb County Schools at Fernbank Science Center and programs for the public-at-large at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, a private, non-profit organization.

Museum Highlights

In 2001, Fernbank became the first museum to display the world's largest dinosaurs in the permanent exhibition Giants of the Mesozoic.

Fernbank received accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 2003-a recognition awarded to less than 5 percent of museums nationwide.

In 2004, Fernbank was selected as the new permanent home of The St. Catherines Island Foundation and Edward John Noble Foundation Collection, which includes more than one million Native American and European artifacts from Mission Santa Catalina de Guale.

In 2006, Fernbank's Curator of Native American Archaeology, Dennis Blanton, began an archaeology research program in Telfair County, Georgia, which has yielded numerous artifacts that can be traced to Hernando de Soto. Fernbank's exciting research has received international attention and garnered the support of the National Geographic Society.

In 2011, Fernbank Museum opened Fernbank NatureQuest, a revolutionary new children's exhibition that builds on the sophisticated learning style of modern children.