RALEIGH, N.C. — Science bested history in North Carolina tourism choices last year, with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences toppling the Biltmore mansion and gardens to become the most popular museum or historic site to visit in the Tar Heel State.
Attendance numbers from 2012 show more than 1.2 million people visited the science museum in Raleigh in 2012, compared to more than 1.1 million who went to Biltmore, the top attraction for the eight previous years. This is the ninth year that Carolina Publishing Associates, based in Matthews, has conducted the annual survey of attendance at North Carolina's museums and historic attractions.
"Clearly, across North Carolina, there's a widespread interest to understand what science can tell us about what's changing in our society and in the environment around us," Alvin Braswell, a deputy director of the museum, said at a news conference Monday.
The Museum of Natural Sciences expanded last year, opening its 80,000-square-foot Nature Research Center in April. The museum's 24-hour opening attracted 70,000 people, spokesman Mark Johnson said.
The Nature Research Center and the increase in visitors go hand-in-hand, but not in the way that people may think, Braswell said. "Our visitation numbers did not grow purely because we're building an exciting new building. ... ," he said. "In many ways, the reverse is true. We expanded the museum and its mission because North Carolinians want to engage in science and understand it better. "
About 700,000 people visited the museum in 2011, the year before the Nature Research Center was built, Johnson said.
Biltmore, located in Asheville, had held the top spot since 2004, when Carolina Publishing started its survey. It took six years to build the house, which George Vanderbilt opened to friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1895.
The house, known as the largest private home in the country, has four acres of floor space with 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. Its estate includes a winery, gardens and other tourist attractions.
Spokesman Mark Hemphill said Biltmore officials are glad to be included on the list. "We're glad to be in the company of such unique and interesting treasures in North Carolina," he said.
The other top-five sites are Discovery Place in Charlotte, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach.
The science museum set the visitor record in 2012, the same year that state legislators approved a scientific moratorium on figures on sea level rise until 2016 while more studies were conducted. That decision came after they first tried to pass a law that said future trends on sea level rise be based solely on historical data, which wouldn't account for the acceleration that many scientists expect.
The Museum of Natural Sciences includes an exhibit on coastline changes, based on research by East Carolina University research professor Stanley Riggs, who studies the state's coastal geology. Push a button and go back to what the coastline looked like as far back as 175,000 years. Or push another button and go forward to what it may look like in 2100.
When asked about the law, Braswell replied that the museum is a non-partisan entity that focuses on unbiased science.
"We are not in the business of knowing all the different factors – political factors, economic factors," he said. "We are in the business of trying to provide good science. "