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After five years of renovation and $11.4 million, the fourth floor of Morrill Hall is finally open to the public.

The "Cherish Nebraska" project at the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History, which opened Saturday in conjunction with the university's 150th anniversary, focuses on looking at local environments and animals from the past and present and applying them to the rest of the world.

"So, we take a look at what people see and take that and provide a global perspective on how amazing Nebraska really is in terms of the natural history," museum spokeswoman Mandy Haase-Thomas said.

The exhibits feature interactive programs for both adults and children, including touchscreens, microscopes and a window into the "Visible Lab," which allows visitors to watch vertebrate paleontologists working on fossils.

There are also models of animals — a dung beetle, giant bison and a thin-sabered cat, which sits next to a fossil skull. Visitors can turn a crank to move the cat's jaws.

"We just want people to appreciate what was here and what is still here, and really, what's in their backyard here in Nebraska," Haase-Thomas said.

The seeds for "Cherish Nebraska" were planted when former museum director Priscilla Grew and the late Vice Chancellor Prem Paul took a delegation to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Haase-Thomas said the museum then started fundraising for the expansion, which she said had always "been sort of a dream."

When developing "Cherish Nebraska," Haase-Thomas said the museum took into consideration the various ages of visitors and the different learning styles they required. Multiple "crawl-throughs" allow children to explore the environments around them.

"So while they play and interact with natural elements, adults can be reading the panels and taking in sort of that higher-level information," Haase-Thomas said.

She said there was a "steady flow" of visitors Saturday, and she expects that to continue.  

"We're looking forward to welcoming people to the museum who haven't been here in possibly decades, so we're really excited to have people see the premiere of the fourth floor," Haase-Thomas said.

One of those people was Sam Ross of Lincoln, who visited the museum with his wife and two children Saturday. He said he hadn't been to the museum since he was their age, about 20 years ago.

"It's more modern up here," Ross said. "It's really stuff that's true to the state, which is really neat. Good learning stuff for the kids."

Claire Inbody of Lincoln said she and her son, Elliott, became members of the museum in preparation for the exhibit opening.

"We just were excited about having the fourth floor, a whole new level of new things to see," she said. "My son loves dinosaurs and fossils, so it's just really fun."

Nebraska is sort of a crossroads for ecoregions, Haase-Thomas said, but some people may not realize it, especially those who live in urban areas.

"So having people really appreciate what we have here in Nebraska was a big goal for us on the fourth floor," she said. "And we're really excited for people to come and learn about this great state from the natural and the cultural heritage."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or cspilinek@journalstar.com.

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