Museum Director Betsy Bennett named Tar Heel of the Year
Reprinted with permission from THE NEWS & OBSERVER, Jan. 1, 2012
Story by Jane Stancill – Photo by Shawn Rocco
2011 Tar Heel of the year
Bringing Science to the People
With energy and vision, Bennett transformed the state science museum. She's 'a force of nature,' a former governor says.
Betsy Bennett's office, her mission control, is cool. Totally cool, as she likes to say.
On the fifth floor of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Bennett's glass walls overlook the "Terror of the South" exhibit, with its 40-foot Acrocanthosaurus, a 110-million-year-old fossil, and flying pterosaurs circling ominously above. In the distance, across the street, is another peril: the legislative building, a place Bennett has managed to tame.
Transforming the landscape nearby is the museum's new wing and the Daily Planet, a three-story multimedia sphere that will bring a wondrous world of science to the people of North Carolina. It is scheduled to open in April.
In two decades, Bennett has managed to bag dinosaurs, lure scientists, sell lawmakers and inspire captains of industry to build a museum that captures the imagination of 700,000 visitors each year.
And the petite museum director, with her blond bob and quick stride, has pulled it off with unbounded energy, solid team building and an infectious sense of adventure. The phrases "totally awesome!" and "absolutely fabulous!" pepper her conversations, but the word "no" doesn't seem to be in her vocabulary.
Take 1997, when Bennett traveled to Sotheby's in New York for a historic event: the auction of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever uncovered.
Just days before, someone dialed Bennett and inquired: Are you going to bid on the dinosaur named Sue?
Bennett was in the late stages of planning a $71 million building for a century-old museum. Museum backers had been to the legislature a half-dozen times for funding, and Bennett still had to raise at least $4 million for exhibits.
Bidding on Sue, a fossil deemed a world treasure, seemed an outlandish idea. But somehow Bennett couldn't dismiss it. She called Dale Russell, the internationally known paleontologist she recruited to North Carolina from Canada. What's a T-rex worth? she asked.
No one knew, Russell said, because none had ever been auctioned.
"I made a few calls," Bennett remembers. "And dadgum, people were excited about doing it."
An anonymous donor was in, and Bennett corralled a small team of supporters to make the trip.
That day, the air at Sotheby's was electric. Within seconds, bids climbed over $1 million. The Smithsonian dropped out. When bids topped $4 million, a nervous Russell sunk down in his chair.
"It's all right, Dale, we have the money," Bennett recalls whispering.
There were just a few bidders left and the others were hidden in small curtained rooms. When Bennett's team raised the paddle at $5 million, the crowd cheered the North Carolina museum.
In the end, Sue went to the Field Museum in Chicago, which had a winning bid of $7.6 million and deep-pocket backing from McDonald's and Disney.
But North Carolina was no loser. Bennett grabbed the museum world's attention with a bid of $7.25 million, and she would eventually fetch a dinosaur that was older, rarer and cheaper.
Success? Don't stop
That expedition showed the moxie of Bennett, who has led North Carolina's natural science museum to major expansion, record attendance and national recognition.
A former teacher and school board member with a Ph.D. in science education, Bennett, 68, has serious credentials and the exuberance of a schoolgirl. She can recruit top scientists and bend the ear of the governor. She has also been known to drop to one knee at the longleaf pine exhibit and wipe fingerprints off the glass with the hem of her skirt.
When Bennett arrived in 1990, the museum needed new life. Despite a long heritage and a vast collection, it was tucked in a state agriculture building - cramped, dark and perhaps best known for a python named George. It was a place that delighted schoolchildren, but didn't exactly have a wow factor.
A star fossil would bring the wow.
Two months after the auction in New York, Bennett's anonymous donor paid $3 million for the Acrocanthosaurus, a dinosaur more suited to the North Carolina museum because it once roamed the Southeast. The Acro with the menacing skull would become the museum's icon.
At the 24-hour opening in 2000, Bennett stood on the balcony, where she could see a line of people wrapped around the Capitol, waiting to get inside the museum. At 2 a.m. It's one of her favorite moments.
Since then, 7.7 million visitors have walked through the doors. The building, with its whale skeletons, arthropod zoo and prehistoric North Carolina exhibits, was an undisputed hit. It is the state's most-visited museum and the top field trip destination. It appeared on a list of top 10 natural history centers in North America.
Most anyone else would have been content to sit back and enjoy the success. But Bennett instead followed the credo of the museum's pioneer, H.H. Brimley, who, along with his brother, began to collect zoological specimens in North Carolina in the late 1800s. Brimley once wrote: "A finished museum is a dead museum."
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