Museum exhibit lets kids share 'Animal Secrets'

January 21, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

New exhibits opening at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Saturday will help visitors learn about animals and the diversity of plant and animal life.

“Animal Secrets” aims to help children 3 to 8 years old learn about the secluded habitats and lives of forest animals from the animals’ perspectives. Parents and other adults also will find the exhibit interesting, according to Ryan Barber, the museum’s director of marketing and external affairs.

“Documenting Diversity,” aimed at all ages, explains how scientists study and document issues pertaining to biodiversity. It also shows why such research is important and how it applies to various types of science.

Barber said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the quality of “Animal Secrets,” developed by the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry.

“It’s very interactive and has lots of hands-on activities,” he said. “Kids can’t break anything” due to the indestructible materials used in the exhibit.

Make-believe habitats in the exhibit, as well as animal sounds emitted by hidden speakers, give visitors the feeling they are outdoors.

Children can enter a model of a hollow tree to see how squirrels live, as well as sit inside a model eagle’s nest. In the nest, they can play with stuffed toy eagles and plastic fish.

Fish are what mother eagles feed their babies, Barber said.

Kids also can go inside a dark, model cave and use a flashlight to discover creatures that inhabit caves, such as spiders, bats and lizards.

Don’t worry, parents — no real animals or insects are used for safety reasons.

“Kids love this kind of stuff,” said Dennis Casey, the museum’s director of education and public programs. “It’s very much like a play area to them.”

Inside a tent, children can pretend they are scientists and examine animal skulls, footprints and other artifacts.

At another station, they can assemble large plastic ants. Casey indicated that is a good way to keep them occupied, based on what he has seen.

“Kids will sit and work on it (an ant) until it’s done,” he said, noting that whether it’s anatomically correct ultimately doesn’t matter.

The exhibit has “enough detail that it’s interesting but not overwhelming” for children, Barber said.

Lessons posted at each station in the exhibit are in both English and Spanish.

A “family guide” is available showing parents how they can use knowledge they and their children gain when they go out exploring nature at home.

“Documenting Diversity,” which includes creatures, rocks, seashells and other specimens in the museum’s collections, is displayed in see-through cases inside the Great Hall.

"Biodiversity is not just for living organisms,” Casey said — it can be seen in fossils in terms of the scope of different organisms that lived in the past.

Panels accompanying the exhibit discuss various topics, including forensics, how carelessly discarded garbage affects ecosystems and how plants and other materials in tropical rainforests are used in modern ways, such as the manufacturing of medicine.

If a single species becomes extinct, “it really can have a devastating effect” on the world, such as if a material used in a particular medicine no longer is available and that medicine no longer can be made, Casey said.

According to the exhibit, scientists estimate that 5 million to 10 million major species of life have existed at some point in the Earth’s history.

However, if bacteria and other microorganisms are counted, that number could be as high as 100 million.

“Animal Secrets” runs through May 7. “Documenting Diversity” continues through Jan. 7, 2012.

Also on Saturday, the museum will sponsor a “Dog Days of Winter” festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The event is designed to teach visitors about unique roles and responsibilities dogs have in people’s lives.

Attractions will include Saint Francis of Assisi Service Dogs who help people with disabilities live independently, the Martinsville Police Department’s K-9 unit and local veterinarian Dr. Joe May, who will discuss how microchips are injected into dogs to track them and help keep them safe.

Regular admission prices at the state-funded museum in Martinsville apply for visiting the festival and the temporary exhibits, Barber said.


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