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August 28, 2009
Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, August 28, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Museum of Natural History has made a lot of progress during the past 25 years, officials agree.

"We've faced many challenges over the years," including funding cuts and convincing the state to build the museum a new building, Interim Executive Director Gloria Niblett said.

Those challenges were overcome, and the museum now is firmly entrenched as a major attraction and economic stimulus for Henry County and Martinsville, as well as the official natural history collections and research center for Virginia, noted Niblett and Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber.

Last year, the museum attracted 32,000 people. Since its new building opened on Starling Avenue, it has hosted people from 49 states and 13 nations.

Officials expect the museum will face new challenges in the future. Barber said he thinks those challenges will be mostly in terms of offering visitors new experiences that will entice them to return over and over.

Saturday, the museum will recognize the progress it has made during the past quarter century during its Founder's Day Celebration.

"It is a chance to honor how far we've come from our humble beginnings," as well as think about the museum's future, Barber said.

Dr. Noel T. Boaz started the museum as a private foundation in 1984. The Boaz Foundation soon was renamed the Virginia Museum of Natural History and opened to the public in June 1985 in a former elementary school on Douglas Avenue in Martinsville.

The museum became a state agency in 1988 with help from then-House Speaker A.L. Philpott of Bassett during the administration of Gov. Gerald Baliles, a Patrick County native.

George Lyle, a member of the museum's board of trustees, recalled that when he came to Martinsville from the Washington, D.C., area that year, "it was just a small museum."

"I was used to big museums in big cities," said Lyle, now the attorney for Henry County government. However, "I was impressed with what it (the museum) had inside" and research being done by its scientists.

"It just needed a better facility" to display its collections and research, he said.

In March 2007, the museum moved into a new 89,127-square-foot building on Starling Avenue, funded through a General Assembly bond issue five years earlier. With roughly five times as much room as the Douglas Avenue facility, the new building gives the museum space for larger, modern exhibits and to display more of its 22 million specimens of natural history.

The museum now is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and has 57 people, including 36 full-time employees, on its staff.

"We have world-renowned scientists" who travel on science exhibitions and consult with scientists worldwide, Barber said.

And, "we're now recognized as one of the top museums in our field in the world," Niblett emphasized.

The museum also is accredited by the American Association of Museums, a distinction that only about 10 percent of museums in the United States have.

While there are a few natural history museums in the nation with larger staffs, "we're definitely as good as they are," said Barber.

The new building helps people realize that, he added.

It also is attracting more people. The museum had about 47,000 visitors in its first fiscal year after moving into the new building, which was quadruple the average number of annual visitors at the old location, Niblett said.

During the 2008-09 fiscal year, visitation dropped to about 32,000 people.

"I'm sure that's due to the economy," said Niblett. "But it's still triple what we had in the old building," and she feels confident visitation will rise when the economy improves and people start traveling more for leisure.

"Our (educational) programs are booked to capacity," she noted. "That shows we have outstanding programs."

Currently, most of the museum's visitors come from an approximately 50-mile radius, including northern portions of North Carolina that are closer to Martinsville than to that state's Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, according to museum officials.

Because it draws many people from outside Henry County and Martinsville, the museum has become a major tourist attraction for the area, Niblett and Barber said. When those visitors come to the community, they stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and shop in local stores, boosting the area's economy, the officials said.

The museum does not yet have statistics showing just how much of a boon it has been to the local economy, they said.

As staff members strive to find ways to lure people from farther distances, Barber said, "we must make sure we continue to have quality exhibits that make people willing to drive (a lengthy distance) to see."

Staff members are working closely with tourism staff of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. to market the museum along with other area attractions. When there are multiple attractions for people to see, they are more likely to visit an area and stay longer, and the longer they stay, the better off the local economy is, Barber indicated.

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