Harvest funded museum project recognized in Commonwealth capital

October 30, 2005

Planning 'must-see' exhibits Expansion of Virginia's natural-history museum seen as economic boon.

Richmond Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

The state's natural-history museum, a short walk from downtown Martinsville, has been derisively called "Philpott's Folly" for the local legislator who had it placed here on Virginia's southern fringe. But the museum could soon stand as a testament to the late A.L. Philpott's foresight.

With the area's textile industry in collapse and the city reporting the highest unemployment rate in the state, construction and fundraising are under way for a new and bigger Virginia Museum of Natural History that officials predict will pump millions of dollars into the local economy every year, lure visitors and tourists by the tens of thousands and become a source of pride to residents made weary by economic hardship over the past decade.

It is a lot to ask of a single building.

"The goal is to turn an outdated and cramped facility into one of the premier natural-history museums in the nation," said Tim Gette, executive director of the museum, which has been a state operation since 1988.

The new $28 million museum will feature five times the space as the current museum, which is located in a small schoolhouse built during the Great Depression. While the current museum is too crowded and cramped to showcase most of the 22 million objects in its collection, Gette said the expansive new museum will be "absolutely world class" when it opens in January 2007. Room will be abundant to display the museum's fossils, rocks, insects, plants and animals.

On Wednesday, the museum's trustees and local dignitaries gathered in a church parking lot next to the site of the new museum to kick off a campaign to raise $5 million to pay for the new museum's permanent exhibits. The exhibits will cost $9 million, of which $4 million has already been committed.

One of those on hand was Marshall Stowe, vice president of the philanthropic Harvest Foundation, who announced the foundation is giving $1 million to the museum to help it reach its goal of $5 million. "The new museum will truly be a statewide destination worth a drive from anywhere," Stowe said. "It will provide economic development and be a source of pride."

The Virginia Museum of Natural History owes its location in Martinsville, population 15,400, to the machinations of Philpott, the powerful Henry County Democrat who served as speaker of the House of Delegates and wielded clout across the state. Since its creation, though, the museum has labored to attract 25,000 visitors a year. In years when the state has struggled for money, the small staff has had to work to save its operating budget of about $2.2 million from the General Assembly's budget-paring knife.

But in 2002, after years of promises of financial help, the state gave the museum a boost by authorizing the sale of bonds to pay for construction of the new, 89,127-square-foot building. To design the exhibit space, the museum's leaders hired the Toronto team of Reich + Petch, a firm with an impressive list of international projects to its credit. The team designed the Smithsonian Institution's Mammal Hall and also worked on the Royal Ontario Museum, the Hong Kong Museum and the Saudi Arabia Museum.

On Wednesday, Tony Reich, executive director of Reich + Petch, promised that the new museum in Martinsville will be "a must-see for both residents and tourists."

The museum, he said, will feature a Great Hall where the skeletons of a dinosaur and ancient whale will greet visitors; an area where visitors can look through glass partitions to watch researchers at work in three laboratories; re-creations of six archaeological dig sites in Virginia; an exhibit where visitors can "experience" a volcanic eruption and see the birth of continents; interactive exhibits and puzzles; and an exhibit of the museum's 22 million objects in storage.

Museum trustees think attendance will jump from the current 25,000 to up to 140,000 per year, with salary and business revenues topping $15 million. If the predictions pan out, the museum would become an economic boon to the city at a time it needs it most. The city's unemployment rate topped 12.8 percent in August, while the state's rate stood at 3.7 percent.

And, as the honorary co-leaders of the fundraising effort noted, the museum will also play a pivotal role in educating future generations of Virginians. Honorary co-leader and former NASCAR driver Ward Burton said children today lack the same connection to nature that he had when he grew up with "the critters" in South Boston.

"Our children have nature deficit disorder," Burton said. "They do not have emotional ties to the outdoors, and they're lacking hands-on experience."

Suzanne Lacy, Burton's co-leader and Philpott's niece, said the bigger and better museum will help change that, once the $5 million is collected to pay for the exhibits.


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