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April 6, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, April 6, 2008

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The number of people visiting the Virginia Museum of Natural History has increased more than 250 percent since the museum moved into its new building on Starling Avenue in Martinsville one year ago.

Income from museum admissions has risen almost 500 percent during the past 12 months as a result of the visitation increase.

Statistics show the museum has received 53,028 visitors since April 2007. That is a 252 percent increase over the average April to March visitation of 21,074 people the museum saw during the past three calendar years.

The heaviest month for visitation was last April just after the new building opened. There were a total of 7,159 visitors that month, figures show. The next heaviest months were June and July, each with more than 6,500.

Average monthly visitation was 4,419 people.

The total admissions income of $104,200 since last April is a 492 percent increase over the average admissions income of $21,167 from the previous two April-to-March calendar years, statistics indicate.

Average admissions income per visitor has risen from $1.01 for the past two years to $1.96. Tim Gette, executive director of the museum, said those figures are less than admission prices because they reflect visitors admitted for free as well as those who pay.

Individual admission prices are $9 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and college students and $5 for youth ages 3 to 18. Museum members and children under 3 years of age are admitted free.

Admissions income is used to pay for employees and programs the state does not fund, including educators, security staff and temporary exhibits, according to Gette.

Temporary exhibits "are not cheap to bring in," he said. For instance, Alien Earths, which is on display until April 30, cost $40,000 for three months.

The museum's 89,127-square-foot building on Starling Avenue is five times as large as its previous location, the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue, and has more modern exhibits due to the extra space.

As a result, museum officials expected a significant increase in visits after moving into the new building, Gette said.

He thinks the momentum will continue for two main reasons - changing exhibits and the economy.

While the museum has permanent exhibits pertaining to Virginia's natural history, its temporary exhibits mean there always will be something new to lure previous visitors back, Gette said.

Amid the economic slump, Virginians are likely to stay closer to home when they go on vacation, he added. Some may come to Martinsville mainly to visit the museum, while others may come mainly to visit attractions such as Philpott Lake yet want to stop by the museum while they are here, he said.

Since moving into its new building, the museum has lured visitors from throughout the United States and other countries, according to officials.

Marketing and External Affairs Director Ryan Barber said the appeal may be not only its exhibits, but also the museum's emphasis on customer service.

Gette said there are museum enthusiasts who travel the nation mainly to visit museums, especially those affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

Visitors from Virginia and elsewhere have been complimentary of the new building and its exhibits, including temporary exhibits, he said.

"When people leave here," he said, "they ask what's coming next and when it's coming."

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