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The Montana Natural History Center

Where the love of nature and conservation go hand-in-hand

“Does the megalodon still exist?”

“How do animals get so fast?”

“How do atmospheres form?”

Florescent sticky notes hang layered on a section of the wall at the Montana Natural History Center (MNHC), a bright focal point amid a room of relics of the natural world: a shovelnose sturgeon, a black-tailed prairie dog, and a full skeleton of a sandhill crane. The sticky notes give visitors of all ages a chance to ask questions about the world around them—one of the first steps to becoming a naturalist and the very aim of the MNHC.

“One of our guiding philosophies is that anyone can be a naturalist with a few basic observation skills,” explained Drew Lefebvre, Museum Programs Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator at MNHC. “Everything you see is still valid. It’s amazing how far that idea can get you.”

Every exhibit, program, lecture, and field trip offered by the MNHC is steeped in the idea that our natural world is special and worthy of exploration—a principle that offers an oft-needed sense of respite in our day-to-day lives.

“There’s so much to distract us. Technology comes at us from all different directions. Kids are exposed to so much at a younger age,” Drew said. “It’s so healthy and grounding to have that sense of place in the world.”

In its most simple definition, a naturalist is someone who observes the natural world around them.

“We aren’t separate from nature; we’re part of it,” explained Jennifer Robinson, MNHC Director of Education and Programs. “People forget—they’re already in nature. You don’t have to step over a threshold to get there.”

The mentality of a naturalist is a paradigm shift—one doesn’t have to “go into nature” or “get out of town” to experience the wonders of the natural world, a reality that the staff of MNHC hopes will spur families to explore, ask questions, and take action.

On the campus of MNHC, visitors can take in a multitude of permanent exhibits featuring a cross-section of Montana wildlife, plants, and geology, as well as special exhibits featuring local scientists and naturalists, such as wildlife photographer Penny Hegyi. And while a spur-of-the-moment trip to the history center can make good use of a summer afternoon, the MNHC’s signature programs get participants outdoors.

The visiting naturalist program, used in fourth grade classrooms across western Montana, serves 1,300 to 1,700 students per year, visiting each classroom once per month and taking students on two field trips over the course of a school year.

Stephanie Lambert, a member of the MNHC board of directors, has attended several of those field trips.

“My mind was blown,” Stephanie said. “Seeing the engagement of these kids at the end of the school year was amazing.”

On top of school year programs, the center hops with summer (and year-round) activities for all ages: summer day camps for elementary students, half-day family camps for pre-K students and their caregivers, lectures, adult learning, and their STEEM (science, technology, engineering, environment, and math) week-long camp for middle-school girls. The center’s longest-running program, Field Notes on Montana Public Radio, provides citizen naturalists with opportunities to write five-minute radio segments on their observations, many of which have been made into a book.

Through each piece of programming, the MNHC is committed to encouraging thoughtful inquiry: observation that leads to action.

“Consistent with our mission is to inspire a love of nature and conservation. The exhibits are designed to inspire people to go out and see it for yourself,” said Thurston Elfstrom, MNHC executive director. “We hope it’s inspiring people to go out and keep learning.”

Allison De Jong, communications director, put it this way: “Getting outside is a jumping off point on how to care about your surroundings. We hope to create new generations of stewards.”

As each of its programs—especially those offered in a digital format—across Montana, the entire U.S., and as far as Panama, the MNHC influences a wide swath of budding conservationists, including those new to western Montana.

“We hope to inspire curiosity,” explained Mark Schleicher, development director. “A lot of people are moving into Montana. We really want to engage those people so we can inspire them about Montana nature.”

Mark wasn’t the only staff member to mention the relevance of “Montana ethos.”

“In the late 1980s, the moniker, ‘The Last Best Place’ was coined about Montana,” Thurston explained. “We’re on the frontline of keeping and protecting all of this around us. If you want to keep it “The Last Best Place,’ you have to save it and preserve it.”

The Montana Natural History Center is located at 120 Hickory Street, Suite A, in Missoula. Find out more about their programs, hours, camps, scholarships, membership, and exhibits by visiting their website at www.MontanaNaturalist.org. MNHC is offering free museum admission through the end of August 2022 if you mention this article.

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