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October 31, 2008

News Article:

By: SUSAN PUGH | New Era Progress
Published: October 31, 2008

Visitors entering the Great Hall get greetings from Allosaurus Rex.

A. Rex - or at least the cast of the dinosaur's 160-million-year-old skeleton - stands at the entrance to the Great Hall of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, a 25-foot long presence.

With a head that seems all jaw studded with pointy teeth and a somewhat T-Rex-shaped body, A. Rex looks the very part of the fierce predator he (for argument's sake) would have been. But an apple-sized calcium deposit on a foot bone and another on a rib offer evidence of broken bones, which suggests A. Rex took his fair share of abuse.

Behind him is a more peaceable being. It's an Eobalaenoptera, ancestor of today's blue whale. Eobalaenoptera lived 14 million years ago when much of eastern Virginia was at the bottom of a shallow sea. The whale's skeleton was found in the Carmel Church quarry in Richmond. Its cast is now suspended from the hall's 40-foot ceiling where it seems to swim endlessly through air.

These creatures emerge from the millennia in a $28 million brick building with walls of windows and brushed aluminum trim. It houses the state's natural history museum - an affiliate of the Smithsonian, no less - in the heart of Martinsville.

Location, location
That the museum is in the Southside city instead of in Richmond, the state capital, has to do with a group of scholars and people who shared an interest in natural history. They founded a museum in Martinsville in 1984 and housed it an old school building. At that time, the museum was privately run by The Boaz Foundation.

"It blossomed out of that," says Debra Lewis, director of development.

The museum's location also has to do with the late A.L. Philpott, then-speaker of the General Assembly and a native of nearby Bassett. When the museum needed public support, he sought to have it designated a state agency. That came to pass in 1988.

Fast-forward two decades, and the museum has brand-new digs - 89,000-plus square feet - to allow for state-of-the-art exhibits and the proper climate control and storage for its specimens, all 22 million of them.

Most specimens are used for research rather than exhibition, adding to the body of knowledge. Research is part of the museum's mission, so it also houses a research library and sponsors field research sites.

Bones to pick
On one side of the Great Hall, a wall with windows gives a view into a room where specimens sit in wooden sandboxes on tables. It's the vertebrate paleontology lab.

"Normally, this is something that would be behind closed doors," says Ryan Barber, director of marketing and external affairs.

One box holds a skull with a long jaw shaped roughly like the prow of a ship. It's that of another baleen whale, and it, too, came from Carmel Church.

On other tables are bones of nearly every description, from vertebrae as big as fists to ribs shaped like boomerangs, plus countless bone fragments.

A man stands over a mass of compacted earth. Here and there, you can see a bone jutting out or impacted in the sediment. The man uses dental tools to pick away dirt, teasing artifacts from millennia-long hiding places.

Not far away, there's another lab. This one's for archeology, and like its counterpart, windows let visitors see inside.

At the windows, there's a display of objects found in our own backyard. Take, for instance, the projectile points, or what most of us probably and not always precisely call arrowheads, from 3,500 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. There's also a mortar and pestle, as well as pots - mundane objects of daily life thousands of years ago.

Across the Great Hall, past A. Rex and beneath Baleen, a hallway leads to some of the museum's exhibit galleries. The museum has three galleries that house eight permanent exhibits.

There are exhibits about the museum's research sites around Virginia that uncover the past, piece by piece. Throughout exhibits areas, some specimens stand unprotected by Lucite; the signs say, "Please touch."

Most of the exhibits' displays incorporate some form of interaction. Push a button in one, for instance, and images on a wall-sized screen will morph to show what the area around Grundy would have looked like millions of years ago. Animated ancient animals move through forests, animals whose fossils became the coal we now dig out of the ground in that area.

Another display shows what Virginia would have been like during the Ice Age, when mastodons and giant ground sloths inhabited the countryside instead of cows and sheep. The footprint of a giant sloth is painted on the floor to measure your foot against.

In the hall leading to the galleries, there's a theater that shows high-definition films - Discovery Channel, PBS and other shorts on science and nature. The current movie, "Wild New World: Land of Mammoths," uses digital effects to depict life 14,000 years ago when wooly mammoths, muskoxen and humans roamed North America.

There's yet another area to check out, one for shows. Right now, it's "Tusks! Ice Age Mammoths and Mastodons," and it will be up until Jan. 4.

It includes a cast of Dima, a wooly mammoth. The 44,000-year-old baby was found in Siberia, preserved in permafrost; Dima still has tufts of fur on his heels.

Somehow, the Ice Age seems a little closer, even on a day when the temperature outside requires, at most, a jacket.

Present tense
Walk out to the Great Hall, past A. Rex and Baleen and through double glass doors to the Paleo Café. There's Seattle's Best on brew and wifi service for a rapid return to 2008.

If you're going
WHAT: The Virginia Museum of Natural History
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: 21 Starling Ave., Martinsville
ADMISSION: $9 for adults, $7 for seniors and college students, $5 for children and youth. Free for children younger than 3 and members.
INFO: The next show, ‘Darwin: Evidence & Evolution,' runs Feb. 7 through April 23. Call (276) 634-4141 or visit