Education takes the forefront with Director William Hamnett, as he emphasizes direct service to teachers and students. Hamnett teaches freshwater biology to fifth graders on field trips to state parks, and delivers natural history lectures to students and teachers in the Museum’s lecture hall. In 1964 an amazing creature arrives in a suitcase from South Vietnam—a 15-foot Burmese Python named George by the soldiers who rescued it from people who intended to eat it. Hamnett agrees to exhibit George temporarily, not realizing that the snake will remain a main visitor attraction until its death nearly 30 years later.
Educational efforts expand further as the Museum distributes a collection of traveling exhibits or "black boxes" to schools, clubs, and camps statewide. The boxes contain bird and mammal mounts, slides, film strips, and one motion picture titled "Your State Museum." Museum staff members help develop school nature trails, give nature programs for school groups, and conduct teacher workshops. The Museum also offers short courses in collaboration with N.C. Botanical Garden, and Sandwich Matinees for office workers who want to watch a nature movie while enjoying a bag lunch.
Ray Ashton takes the helm in the late ’70s and hires Mary Ann Brittain, who begins recruiting and training docents to present Curiosity Classes for visiting school groups. The American Association of Museums accredits the Museum in 1979, recognizing the achievement of professional standards in collections and services.
Under Brittain’s guidance school programs grow and begin to emphasize serving visiting school groups, helping educators learn about natural sciences, and incorporating science lessons into everyday classroom activities. Public programs, headed by Jesse Perry, take a big leap forward with the introduction of thematic events that later evolve into the immensely popular Astronomy Day, Reptile and Amphibian Day, and BuGFest! In recognition of its emphasis on natural sciences and conservation, in 1983 the Museum is transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
As the decade opens, Dr. Betsy Bennett becomes the Museum’s director. A short time later, Duke University donates its vast collection of N.C. freshwater fauna to the Museum, nearly doubling Museum holdings. Further additions from the N.C. Institute of Marine Science and other institutions push Museum collections past 1 million specimens. The Museum is bursting at the seams, and Bennett leads a long-desired push for expansion.
In 1995, Governor James Hunt launches the Museum’s campaign for new exhibits, which eventually raises $36 million. The Research Lab is completed in 1998, giving collections climate-controlled room in which to grow.
The search for specimens to enhance the new Museum yields spectacular finds. The Museum acquires a 3-million-year-old set of teeth from a 43-foot shark (Carcharadon megalodon) discovered in Beaufort County, and an amazing pair of dinosaur skeletons.
One, a 110-million-year-old carnivorous dinosaur and denizen of the Southeast, Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, is destined for the new building’s cornerstone “Terror of the South” exhibit, and remains the only fossil of its kind on display in the world. The other, a 66-million-year-old herbivorous Thescelosaurus, nicknamed Willo, is the first dinosaur discovered with a preserved heart, garnering worldwide attention for the Museum.