Coastal Discovery Museum earns newly designated Smithsonian affiliation

On Nov. 19, something new went on display at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

But it isn’t among the other exhibits. Now hanging in the office of President/CEO Rex Garniewicz is a framed certificate that reads: “Smithsonian Institution Certificate of Affiliation: The Board of Regents and the Secretary of the Smithsonian is pleased to recognize Coastal Discovery Museum as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Photo by Butch Hirsch (From left; Costal Discovery Museum staff members Natalie Hefter, Jennifer Stupica, Rex Garniewicz, Carlos Chacon, Robin Swift and Dawn Brut are shown with the Smithsonian Institution Certificate of Affiliation.

The news of this prestigious new relationship was a superb way to celebrate the Coastal Discovery Museum’s 30-year anniversary and serves as a significant turning point in both its current and future mission.

The Coastal Discovery Museum opened its doors in 1985 and made the move to Honey Horn in 2007. The site, once a private hunting and fishing preserve in the early 1900s, was restored by former director Michael Marks and his staff and helped draw large crowds.

“Michael did a great job and brought it to the level it is now. The museum has received amazing support from the community and visitors know a lot about us and many say that visiting the the museum is an integral part of their trip,” said Garniewicz. “We are taking the next steps with our mission, vision and values. We stress the way to inspire people to protect the environment and the arts is by taking action, making Hilton Head Island a better place to be.” 

The new Discovery Lab, a dedicated space for exhibits and classroom equipment to open early this year, was funded by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, the VanLandingham Rotary, accommodations tax grants and others, is an example of the ongoing projects and the work in progress.

Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian Affiliations for the past 10 years and who has worked at the Smithsonian Institution for 40 years — including 20 based at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. — paid the Coastal Discovery Museum a site visit during the affiliation process.

“First, I was very honored to be on Hilton Head and was grateful that town manager Steve Riley let me publicly recognizing the new affiliation before his lecture,” Closter said. “I enjoyed listening to the discussion. Everybody I met was very welcoming and you have a wonderful museum — something that can provide so many opportunities on so many levels. Not every community has something like that, so I salute the community.”

“I loved the art, loved the water meeting the land and how that has influenced the life of so many people — the intersection of everything. In coastal places, you have a special relationship with water, land, people and ecology and there’s something very precious and special and that relationship is very important,” he added.

The Smithsonian Institution launched its Affiliations Program in 1996. Across the nation, museums are looking for ways to involve and engage audiences, to allow visitors to tailor their own experience and to make exhibits more interactive and personal, involving new education strategies and technology. It means inviting more community participation and means being more inclusive, recognizing that people have different learning styles.

“I would say that’s one of the many things that the Coastal Discovery Museum is doing,” Closter says. “Visitors come in groups, so it a social experience. The great thing about the Coastal Discovery Museum is that it combines so many different areas — art, history, nature and science, and it shows us that all these things are related.”

Nestled among the ancient, majestic trees and marsh front boardwalks, the grounds offer scenic trails, a butterfly garden, indigenous marsh tacky horses and plaques dedicated to native islanders and to those who have played an important role in the history of the island.

When Garniewicz came to the Coastal Discovery Museum in June 2014, he and the staff got started on the application. The Smithsonian Institution is very selective, so the Coastal Discovery Museum had to implement new policies and update its procedures. Garniewicz had experienced the application process during his time as a curator at the Museum of Man in San Diego, so he knew the Coastal Discovery Museum had to step it up to meet the Smithsonian’s exacting criteria: Applicants must be non-profit organizations, must have staff with professional experience and credentials, and facilities must meet requirements for security and safety for possible exhibit loans.

“They have to have a strong educational mission that serves the community in a broad way. The Coastal Discovery Museum met all those requirements,” Closter said. “There is a very big application package that they needed to submit with information about mission, organization chart, and financials, and we pay very close attention that they are compatible with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution and infrastructure. We follow our affiliates closely, and our staff stays in close contact, and we monitor and review on an annual basis. The relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties. Partnerships take time and take community support.”

One of those benefits is that the Coastal Discovery Museum can send some of its staff on professional development trips, where they will work with the Smithsonian staff on educational programs. Museum officials say having access to Smithsonian resources will be a big benefit.

What else is in the pipeline at the Coastal Discovery Museum? “We would like to focus on what is known as ‘citizen science,’ where people are collecting data that could be analyzed,” Garniewicz said. “This would mean it would take the effort of volunteers in our area — and we have so many people who are willing to step in and dedicate their time and expertise. And we would like our museum to have not only a local and regional impact but a global impact. For example, our turtle preservation program not only affects the total turtle population in the immediate area but around the world.”

With the Smithsonian behind it, the possibilities for the Coastal Discovery Museum are endless.


The Coastal Discovery Museum joins other Smithsonian Affiliations museums in South Carolina: South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, the Children’s Museum of the Upstate in Greenville, the Upcountry History Museum at Furman University in Greenville, and the York County Culture and Heritage Museums in Rock Hill. Nationally, affiliate museums include the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the Denver Art Museum, George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. Visit and for more information.