Go inside The Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, close your eyes and listen. You can’t miss it: the energetic laughter and excited chatter of children. Museum accountant Janice Edge says it’s one of the best parts of her job. “I love to see and hear the excitement of children and their families,” she says. “This is an atmosphere of learning being fun and cool. Bright and happy learning.”
One big surprise about the Schiele is that it’s not only for kids. “We plan our programs and our exhibits around them being a family experience, things that three generations can come and do together,” says Director Dr. Ann Tippitt. “We provide a clean, safe, exciting environment for our families to be together and learn together.”
The Schiele attracts about 96,000 visitors each year. Many arrive on school buses that line the perimeter of the parking lot. Others come in small groups of family or friends. From artifacts to interpretive displays, live animals to fossilized bones, looking into microscopes or up into the universe at the James H. Lynn Planetarium, the Schiele has something for every age and interest.
“I often hear people say, ‘I haven’t been to the museum since I was in junior high school,’” Edge says. “And I say, ‘You wouldn’t even recognize it. It’s so much fun.’ I wish that, when I was in school, science would have been presented to me in this way.”
Program specialist Candice Jordan says she hears that, too. “Parents come along with a school group and tell me how much they learned. It’s not just for kids. Adults can have just as much fun,” Jordan says. Stephenie Berggrun, another program specialist, says adults are not an afterthought when they plan programs and exhibits. “It’s not just about bringing your kids here,” Berggrun says. “We have adult workshops that are not just for teachers. We have adult-focused events.”
Education is the largest department within the museum, and Jordan and Berggrun are two of six full-time educators. “I love my job,” Jordan says. “You get to do something in your area of expertise and have fun with it. The content that I get to produce is fun for me, so, hopefully, it’s fun for the audience as well.”
Tony Pasour is Director of Interpretation at the museum, overseeing education, exhibits, public programming and the planetarium. “If our educators talk about things that they are already interested in, they are going to do a better job,” he says. “That makes for the best products we can put before our citizens.”
Assistant Director Karl McKinnon says the employees are more than just interested in the topics. “Our educators are passionate about what they do. They spend their waking hours and probably their sleeping hours thinking about how they’re going to present it. The students and guests get a fantastic program because of our educators’ passion,” McKinnon says. Tippitt adds, “We have the brightest, most competent, forward-thinking team we’ve ever had.”
Another surprise about the Schiele, at least for many out-of-town guests, is that the Smithsonian-affiliated museum is in Gastonia. “People get off the interstate and say, ‘What is this museum doing here?’” Tippitt says with a smile. “Sometimes staff might be offended. But it’s really a compliment. Why shouldn’t it be here?”
McKinnon says the Schiele is unique and one of only a handful of museums of its type in the Carolinas. “There are lots of museums in North Carolina, but there are no others like this one,” he says. “There are little science museums dotted throughout the state. But there are only about four of the size and quality of this museum. We hold our own, especially in the quality of our programming,” McKinnon says.
The Schiele Museum’s history in Gastonia
Rudolph “Bud” Schiele and his wife, Lily, moved to Gaston County from Pennsylvania in 1924 to form and lead a regional council of the Boy Scouts of America. Bud Schiele had worked as an apprentice curator at a museum in Philadelphia. He spent his life studying nature and taught himself taxidermy. He loved bugs, rocks, animals and the wide scope of the natural world. His wife was interested in Native American artifacts. The two amassed a huge collection of natural wonders and historical relics, which they displayed at the scout office in Gastonia and took to Boy Scout summer camps in the area.
In 1959, three former Boy Scouts who were now adults decided to create a museum for the Schieles’ collection. The museum opened in 1961 in a 1,500-square-foot building in Gastonia. It began as a public-private partnership with donations from interested people, and money and land from Gaston County government, Gaston County Schools and the State of North Carolina. The City of Gastonia took over the museum in 1964 after paying the County $1.
The Schiele Museum of Natural History is still a public-private partnership, but it now has 77,000 square feet indoors and six outdoor exhibits. Its official mission is to inspire “curiosity and understanding of science and the natural world through exceptional educational programs, exhibits and research.”
A total of 51 people work at the Schiele. Of those, 29 are City employees and the other 22 are described as board employees because their salaries and benefits are not paid by the City. The Schiele’s board of trustees helps guide the museum’s expenditures and activities.
The Schiele’s annual operating budget is about $3.1 million. Nearly 75% of that comes from the City’s general fund. The rest comes from private sources, grants, admission fees and donations. In the past two decades most capital costs have been funded by private contributions, such as building the Environmental Studies Center in 2013 and the 2015 upgrade to the planetarium.
Tippitt says most of the revenue to continue expanding and improving the museum will likely come from private sources. “We have grown the nonprofit side of our organization,” she says. “We’ve become more active in fundraising and growing our earned-income streams.”
Tippitt says museums across the country must increasingly rely on private money. “Customer service is really important to us. We operate like a business and understand that we must produce a great product so that people are willing to spend their money and their time here,” she says. The museum also seeks out sponsors for events and exhibits, and Tippitt says they have received “extremely generous support” from individuals and businesses in the area. The next big fundraising campaign will be tied to the museum’s 60th anniversary in 2021.
The museum began charging admission in the 1990s, but, twice a month, there is no charge to enter. On the second Tuesday of the month, it’s free from 4-8 p.m. And there’s no charge from 1-5 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month. On the second Tuesday of July, 600 people showed up for free admission.
“This has become a really cool place for people to be,” says Edge, the accountant. “It’s a good value for the money.” City employees get a $2 discount on admission. And the museum is open 361 days a year, including many City holidays.
In addition to providing programs and exhibits for the public, the Schiele offers training classes and certification for educators who work in parks, museums, nature centers, aquariums and the like. The National Association for Interpretation certification focuses on professional development for educators who don’t work in traditional school classrooms.
Reality vs. virtual reality
The hands-on, interactive learning that happens in a museum is designed to complement school-based instruction. And for some people, that “see-it-touch-it-engage-with-it” style of learning is more effective. “We call them ‘lightbulb moments,’” McKinnon says of the times when a visitor, especially a child, suddenly becomes interested in a topic because the museum provides interactive rather than passive learning.
And the Schiele is doing more to serve guests with special needs. Recently, the planetarium offered a show for people who are unusually sensitive to light and sounds. The event drew a big crowd and “good positive feedback,” Tippitt says.
The Schiele’s biggest attraction may be its emphasis on authenticity. McKinnon describes it this way: “People might say, ‘That taxidermy bear (on display) is old.’ Or, ‘I can see a bear on the internet, and I can see him move and hear him growl.’ But you won’t see that bear up close. Or you won’t see what his whiskers look like. Or how he compares to you, size wise. In the digital age, you can see almost anything in a device in the palm of your hand. But that doesn’t mean that you experience it. The Schiele Museum is all about experiential learning.”
That’s why the best nickname for the department might be “It’s Real at the Schiele.” Real animals and other artifacts. Real people who are passionate about what they do. A real value for people of all ages looking to learn and have fun. The Schiele is a real treasure right here in Gastonia.