Natalie Hefter

Living to Learn

Most people learn to live well, but Natalie Hefter lives to learn well. An Indiana Hoosier by birth, Natalie spent her childhood traveling and visiting historical landmarks. "I blame my parents for my interest in museums. We would travel all over the world and visit historical sites and museums. We fished, but nature wasn't our focus. Museums connected the dots for me. They have always been a part of growing up, so I knew I would end up working at a museum."

Natalie first lived in Palm Beach, Florida. During her high school years, the Hefters began vacationing on Hilton Head Island. In 1988, their vacation destination became their permanent address. Natalie earned an undergraduate degree in art history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. After taking some course work on historical preservation, she changed her major to museum studies and preservation. Stemming from an internship at the Coastal Discovery Museum, on Hilton Head Island, Natalie started a full-time position in 1997. Today, Natalie is the Vice President of Programs, overseeing temporary exhibits, tours, educational programs, and special events.

The unique educational environment at the Coastal Discovery Museum, located at historic Honey Horn Plantation, provides a multifaceted job description. "I have art and artifacts and I deal with baiting the crab traps and feeding the birds. People ask me what I do and 'teacher' is not what comes to mind. I can't imagine being a teacher. But I try to come up with a fun way to share our information. At the museum, we try to show how art, science, and history overlap. It's all about sneaking in that little bit of information. We try to be informative and engaging, as well as exciting."

From exhibit and tour designing, to answering phones, Natalie and her coworkers share many responsibilities. "There's definitely a family feel to the business. We've all worked together for at least six years. With a small staff like this and in such a busy place, we are all here to back each other up. You never know who is going to be out helping with landscaping or hanging pictures in the gallery or transporting mounted birds."

With a background, in art history, Natalie has adopted an interest in the variety of art forms. "I wish I was an artist. I appreciate the methods and how artists go about getting their point across." But even with art history, Natalie's thirst for knowledge is not sated. "I'm especially interested in Gullah traditions and Mitchelville. Honey Horn used to be a hunting club and I would like to learn more about the people who came to visit in the 30s and 40s. Just recently, I've learned about sea turtles, butterflies, and marsh tacky horses just by working at the museum. All those were never in my vision of a career. And even though history is my expertise, I'm learning so much about the coastal environment."

Under Natalie's program management and the hard work of the museum staff, the Coastal Discovery Museum has grown immensely in the last five years. The school outreach has more than doubled, now including 10,000 educational program participants. Recently, the museum earned grant money to help with the cost of bringing people across the Broad River to the museum. Staff volunteers are trained to travel and teach programs at schools. With the help of scholarships, it has become possible for schools to tour museum exhibits at lower costs.

Natalie often meets returning visitors who attended a fourth or fifth grade camp or tour at the museum. She sees first hand how sharing information and a love for learning has benefited so many. "I appreciate, especially these last few years, residents who bring their families and friends. They come with them, they don't just send them. Supporters that have backed the museum for years are now stopping in regularly. The staff and I are really proud of making the museum something that the locals are proud of."

It is not enough for Natalie to learn; she shares too. "My mission, and the mission of the museum, is to educate others about history and heritage. It's rewarding to see people's eyes light up when they learn something they never really thought about before. It's a nice compliment that we have done a good job here."

Up Close:

Next big project: "I'm launching a Civil War exhibit on September 1. It will run through the end of April 2012. It will tell the story of the early years of the war on Hilton Head Island."
Back-to-school tip: "Learning can be fun. Take an opportunity to do some learning outside the classroom that would relate to school and ease kids back into learning. When they're learning about turtles they can say, 'I saw a nest at the beach' or 'a blue crab at the Coastal Discovery Museum.' If there's one thing they're passionate about or interested in learning, keep on that path as far as it will go."
Final advice: "While going about your daily life, look for the little details, the natural things that might pop up. A bird or butterfly or lizard might cross your path, and if you aren't looking, you'll miss it. There's a lot of interesting things to learn here in the Lowcountry. Keep your ears and eyes open and learn more about where you live."