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The Founding of Fernbank

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

It’s believed that one of her favorite places in the forest was a creek bank covered with ferns, which she named "Fernbank."

Emily Harrison’s vision 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 the Trustees of Fernbank to preserve and protect it for future generations. Today, at 65 acres, Fernbank Forest is the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the country.

As an adult, Harrison dreamed of maintaining Fernbank as a "school in the woods" for nature study. In 1939, Harrison and Dr. Woolford Baker, a biologist at Emory University, led a group of 15 "conservation-minded environmentalists" to establish Fernbank as a 501(c)(3) non-profit with the intent to purchase and preserve the 65 acres of old-growth woodlands.

“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 forest. 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. Fernbank Museum is one of the most popular and iconic cultural attractions in Atlanta. Fernbank continues 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 led the 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 that allowed teachers to use the forest for science education. As part of this 48-year lease agreement, DeKalb County agreed to fence the forest and begin a security and maintenance program. The partnership between DeKalb County and Fernbank also allowed Fernbank Trustees to deed four acres of land adjacent to the forest to the School System for the construction of DeKalb County’s Fernbank Science Center, which opened in 1967 to offer science programs to DeKalb teachers and students.

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 Fernbank Museum, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

Fernbank Science Center, which is a unit of and funded by the DeKalb County School System, is not formally affiliated with Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The two organizations continue to inspire future generations of scientists while offering programs (including forest access) for DeKalb County Schools through Fernbank Science Center and programs for the public-at-large at Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

Museum Highlights

  • Fernbank Museum of Natural History opened its doors on October 5, 1992, featuring a variety of hands-on permanent exhibitions, Atlanta’s largest IMAX® screen, a selection of traveling exhibits and unique science programming.
  • Fernbank is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums—a recognition awarded to fewer than 5 percent of museums nationwide. Museums are able to apply for accreditation after 10 years of operation, and Fernbank first received accreditation in 2003.
  • In 2001, Fernbank became the first museum to display the world's largest dinosaurs in the permanent exhibition Giants of the Mesozoic.
  • In 2004, Fernbank was selected as the 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, which was established on St. Catherines Island, Ga. in the 16th century.
  • In 2006, Fernbank began an archaeology research program in Telfair County, Ga., which led to the discovery of important 15th-century 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 2009, Fernbank added a Dinosaur Plaza near the museum’s entrance, offering the first-ever recreation of Lophorhothon atopus with three bronze dinosaur statues.
  • In 2011, Fernbank Museum opened Fernbank NatureQuest, a revolutionary children's exhibition that explores habitats in the natural world.
  • In September 2016, Fernbank expanded the museum experience to the great outdoors with 75-acres of nature education and science adventures in Fernbank Forest and WildWoods.
  • In February 2017, Fernbank opened a new state-of-the-art 4K laser projection system with both 2D and 3D capabilities.
  • In February 2017, Fernbank debuted the new monthly adult science nights, Fernbank After Dark
  • Throughout the Museum’s history, Fernbank has won many awards, including Best Museum in Atlanta, Top 10 Museum for Dinosaurs in the World, Best Family Attraction, Best School Field Trip, and more.