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Charleston's SC Aquarium receives nation's 'highest honor' for museums

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David Corvette, a volunteer with the South Carolina Aquarium, interacts with onlookers from inside the Great Ocean Tank on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff.

Charleston's South Carolina Aquarium is one of 10 libraries and museums in the country to receive this year's National Medal for Museum and Library Service, a federal agency announced Tuesday

The award, which is given annually by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is described by the Washington, D.C.-based agency as the "nation’s highest honor given to libraries and museums."

The S.C. Aquarium is now the third museum in the state and the sixth aquarium in the U.S. to receive the award. 

Ten winners were selected from a pool of 30 national finalists, which were announced in March. One other South Carolina institution, the Union County Carnegie Library in the Upstate, was named as a finalist this year. 

The S.C. Aquarium was also a finalist in 2018.

Robert Macdonald, a director emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York and vice chairman emeritus of the S.C. Aquarium, submitted the nomination. 

Of the five recipient museums this year, the pool of winners includes the New Children's Museum in San Diego, which says it's one of the state's first "green" museums, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. 

"I think it's a very tough competition," said Kevin Mills, the aquarium's president and CEO

Mills said that the nonprofit's educational work on climate change, sea level rise and plastic pollution likely contributed to the win, since the award primarily focuses on libraries' and museums' community impact. 

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The aquarium operates a mobile app that encourages people to collect data on litter, sea rise and the presence of lionfish, which are an invasive species. Its Good Catch program supports the consumption of responsibly-sourced seafood, and Mills said the aquarium's education programs have reached more than 1 million students in the state. 

"I'm so proud of our team," Mills said. "This is really a testament to their talent and dedication." 

The aquarium has about 130 staff members and 350 volunteers, he said. 

The National Medal for Museum and Library Service has been awarded for the last 25 years. Each winner is recognized at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. and receives a $5,000 grant. 

Five other aquariums, including Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, the New England Aquarium in Boston and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and two other South Carolina museums — Columbia's EdVenture Children's Museum and the Columbia Museum of Art — have received the honor. 

The S.C. Aquarium first opened along Charleston Harbor in May 2000. It has about 60 exhibits and operates a Sea Turtle Care Center, which rehabilitates turtles found on South Carolina beaches and beyond.

The center's first public sea turtle release of the year was held last week at Folly Beach County Park. Three loggerhead turtles, including one transferred from Boston to Charleston and two rescued in the region, were released back into the ocean. 

To celebrate the award and the aquarium's 19th year of operation, general admission will be $19, an about $11 discount, on May 19. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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