Nature in Decatur, Neighbor to Arts

Getting rid of bugs has been a Cook family passion for three generations. Now the family has endowed a museum to put those little critters where they belong — on display among the many wonders of the north Alabama ecosystem.

Construction is well under way on the $17 million facility that will house the new Cook Museum of Natural Science, on an aggressive track for a public grand opening by the end of 2017.  

“It is exceeding our wildest dreams, ” says Brian Cook, museum board president and grandson of its founder, John R. Cook Sr. “It’s going to be so meaningful in many ways for downtown Decatur and the region.”

Marketing research suggests that the museum will draw 214, 000 visitors in its first year. The analysis was based on 600 telephone surveys of adults with live-in children from Nashville to Birmingham, he says.

“That’s not including school groups, ” Cook says. “When we heard that we were shocked and at first said, ‘No way, that’s absurd.’ But we took a deep breath, trusted the research and really began analyzing our plans and thinking on a higher-level caliber than when we started.”

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The museum will be another catalyst in the redevelopment of the downtown area, says Wally Terry, Decatur’s director of economic and community development, who also serves on the museum’s community board. 

Downtown Decatur already got a boost from the Alabama Center for the Arts, a collaborative academic effort by Athens State University, Calhoun Community College, Decatur and Morgan County. It began with a visual arts center that opened in 2012, then a music and drama center opened to students this fall.

The new Arts Center, in turn, has attracted additional restaurants to downtown,  Terry says.

“We measure great communities and regions by the quality of life they offer their citizens, ” Terry says. “The Cook Museum of Natural Science and Alabama Center for the Arts will put Decatur on the radar for people relocating and looking for a small community with big community offerings.”

Terry says the new Cook museum will boost interest in Decatur, the North Alabama region and the entire state.

“When you think of Alabama and the Space and Rocket Museum, Civil Rights Museum, McWane Science Museum and others, you will now think Cook Museum of Natural Science to complement the Alabama Museum Trail, ” Terry says. 

He predicts a big impact for downtown Decatur.

“This will bring in excess of 200, 000 people yearly, creating foot traffic for retailers, restaurants and others that will want to locate in our downtown and surrounding locations, ” Terry says. “We will become a destination location.”


The museum is taking shape at 133 Fourth Ave. N.W., on the site of a former auto parts store. Cook says the original plan was to renovate the building. That was before the market research came back. Then the building was torn down, along with other properties on a 2.3-acre tract near the historic Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, another thriving downtown attraction.

The 57, 000-square-foot museum, designed by Huntsville-based Fuqua & Partners Architects, will include permanent and traveling exhibits, classrooms, an immersive theater, gift shop, café and an outdoor patio.

Cook says educational outreach for area schools has always been a primary focus for the family when planning the museum. 

“One of the neatest things that recently happened when installing the jellyfish tank, the supervisor explained that jellyfish can live 24 hours outside of water. So we can take acrylic cylinders, put them inside with a lid and a teacher can actually pick one up, take it to their class and bring it back at the end of the day, ” Cook says. “Not all kids have an opportunity to go to the large aquariums in Tennessee or Georgia, but I can imagine how amazing it will be for a little kid seeing a live jellyfish for the first time. I believe it can have a profound impact on kids, and it’s just one example of our vision and the impact we hope it will have.”

“It’s all going to be focused on natural sciences — not history, dealing with origins or Native Americans — but the observable world around us, ” Cook says. 

The museum will feature the ecology, biology and chemistry of the Tennessee Valley.

Cook calls it a blending of traditional museum collections based in an environmental, experiential environment.

There will be a live animal component, featuring a 15, 000-gallon saltwater tank and another 500-gallon freshwater tank in the Rivers and Streams Exhibit Hall. Visitors will see a variety of live animal terrariums, even a live beehive exhibit, Cook says.

The new museum is a far cry from the warehouse that once housed the insects, rocks and minerals collected by John R. Cook Sr.

A concrete-and-steel structure that will look and feel like a cave will showcase formations and the wildlife that lives in and around caves. The forests of the Southeast will be featured, including “furry friends” of the forest.

A Feathers and Flight Exhibit will include bald eagle and golden eagle exhibits, which were a rare find at the original museum.

And of course, Cook says an insect display, which shows “the beautiful and diverse insects around the world, ” will be featured. That’s where it all started, after all.

Cook’s grandfather, John R. Cook Sr., founded a private museum connected to the family business, Cook’s Pest Control. 

Training was important to his grandfather, based on what he had learned in the Navy and studying architecture at Georgia Tech. When he took over the business after his father’s death in 1950, he invested in training and insect collections. Over time, local Boy Scouts troops and others made appointments to come see the Cook insect collection.

Cook says the collection grew to include other items like rock and mineral collections, and in 1980, a 5, 000-square-foot warehouse became the Cook Natural Science Museum, a private museum. It had more than 750, 000 visitors over the years. 

Cook’s grandfather died in 2009. Nearly five years ago, the family sat down to discuss what to do about the museum’s future.

“It had been a great expense for the pest control business, which covered all of its operational expenses. It was free to the public all these years, ” Cook says. “So we talked about things like, do we just refurbish the carpet? Had it run its course? Do we relocate it, make it a tourist destination and improve it? Those were the questions we were facing.”

In the end, the family knew the museum had a future in downtown Decatur.

“It is too special and meaningful, ” Cook says. “We were entrusted with too much to let anything go or to do it halfway.”

Now, the museum is a nonprofit organization with donations from all over Alabama and outside the state. 

“We’ve scaled up our internal capabilities with a fantastic team to create this, and we’re collaborating with experts from a whole host of fields to get the science and context correct, ” Cook says. “We have an Alabama fabricator (Southern Custom Exhibits, in Anniston) working on our exhibits who does work nationally and it’s all a lot more work that I ever imagined.”

He’s not complaining, at all. He could’ve hired a company to put the museum together, but it just wouldn’t be the same. 

“I feel it would’ve the lost the family connection, ” Cook says. “We have developed a fantastic team and empowered them to put their thumbprint on it, but outsourcing it didn’t feel right.”

What would his grandfather think about it?

“He would be wearing a huge grin and he would have absolutely loved it to the point he would not have been able to sleep, ” Cook says. “He loved seeing dirt turned over in construction sites, beautification projects and building a new office. He loved this community, giving back and being involved and this whole project encompasses so much of who he was and what he was about.”

Wendy Reeves is a Huntsville-based freelance writer for Business Alabama.

Text by Wendy Reeves

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