Harvest contribution launches educational exhibits at museum

October 27, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

When patrons visit the new Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in its new location, they will be treated to a hands-on scientific experience, said museum officials.

Standing in the shadows of the building's steel skeleton, VMNH unveiled designs of the permanent exhibits that will occupy its new home and launched a campaign to fund those exhibits Wednesday.

Each of the five planned exhibits -- "Uncovering Virginia," "How Nature Works: Rocks," "How Nature Works: Life," "How Nature Works: Evolution" and "Documenting Diversity" -- was designed to provide patrons with a hands-on foray into Virginia's natural history and the processes by which scientists have uncovered it, said Tony Reich, president of Reich and Petch, designers who helped plan the displays.

"Visitors will find out about the state from new angles, with new eyes," Reich said.

The exhibits will cost an estimated $9 million, $4 million of which has already been raised.

George Lyle, county attorney and VMNH vice-chair, and VMNH President Debbie Lewis will co-chair the campaign to raise the remaining $5 million, the theme of which will be "Make a Lasting Impression."

Suzanne Lacy, whose uncle, A.L. Philpott, was instrumental in securing the museum's status in Virginia, and former NASCAR driver Ward Burton are honorary co-chairs of the campaign.

To kick off the museum's fund-raising efforts, the museum's board of trustees, board of directors and museum staff have pledged $250,000 and the Harvest Foundation has donated $1 million.

Tim Gette, VMNH executive director, said he has been reaching out to community groups, corporations and individuals both in Martinsville-Henry County and across the state to raise the remaining $3.75 million.

In recognition of its donation, VMNH will name the new building's Great Hall in honor of the Harvest Foundation, said Gette.

It is in the Great Hall where visitors will begin their museum experience. The room will feature the skeletons of an Allosaurus dinosaur and a whale hanging from the skylight-laden vaulted ceiling as well as glass-walled laboratories in which visitors will be able to view scientists at work.

In the "Uncovering Virginia" exhibit, visitors will experience what Virginia looked and sounded like hundreds of millions of years ago through video and animation. Six re-created dig sites will inform patrons of important scientific finds uncovered in the state.

"How Nature Works: Rocks" will teach patrons about the geological processes that shaped Virginia and allow visitors to compare the state's current landscape to the Virginia of old. The exhibit will feature a volcanic eruption and displays demonstrating how the continents were formed.

Guests will be introduced to the mysteries of how energy is captured and transformed in "How Nature Works: Life," which will feature a sun-bathed simulated forest that will conceal animals and their secrets of survival.

"How Nature Works: Evolution" will tell the evolutionary story of the whale beginning with a four-legged creature that, over the course of 50 million years, transformed into the whales that inhabit today's ocean.

Finally, the "Documenting Diversity" exhibit will offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the VMNH through the rotation of the 22 million minerals, shells, insects and animal skulls it has in storage.

Given the sheer magnitude of those holdings, it was difficult to decide what would make the permanent displays, said Gette.

"We could have filled several of these buildings," he said, pointing to the building site.

In the end, the museum and its collaborators, Reich and Petch, the design team that planned the Smithsonian's Mammal Hall, and Blue Sky Design decided to concentrate on addressing state public schools' Standards of Learning (SOL).

That, said Gette, will ensure the museum addresses the needs of learners of all ages both in Martinsville-Henry County and statewide.

By drawing crowds from across the state, the museum will provide a much-needed boost to the area's economy, said Lyle, who is co-chair of the fund-raising campaign.

According to a study funded by the Harvest Foundation and carried out by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, the new building is expected to increase museum attendance from 25,000 to between 87,000 and 140,000 visitors a year, he said.

Those visitors, combined with the salaries of additional museum staff, are expected to bring nearly $15 million to the area annually, according to the study.

"If you think about it, that's like a small- to medium-sized business opening in Martinsville-Henry County each year," Lyle said.

The building's construction is scheduled for completion in early 2006. That July, the museum's staff will move into their new accommodations and will partially open the building to the public in September 2006. The museum's grand opening is scheduled for January 2007.


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