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July 1, 2007

Press Release: Roanoke Times

By Erinn Hutkin

MARTINSVILLE -- Occasionally, he uses his cane to point to spots on the dinosaur. The knot on its claw-like middle toe. The curved rib that did not heal properly after it was broken.

"Maybe he got in a fight," suggests Louis Judson, the museum educator working this afternoon in his bright blue vest. "Or maybe he was clumsy. Or both."

Sometimes he uses his cane to point. Sometimes not. Either way, Judson spends the afternoon re-telling visitors the same joke.

The fossil is a collection of black bones some call "Big Al," the remains of an allosaurus found in Wyoming. Now, 140 million years after dinosaurs stomped across Earth, Judson muses about what happened to the creature as its skeleton -- pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle -- stands in the lobby of Martinsville's new Virginia Museum of Natural History.

In late March, the museum left behind the building it occupied since its 1984 inception -- an old elementary school. Now, it operates from a new, 89,000-square-foot site on Starling Avenue with glass walls, high ceilings and Big Al perched above the linoleum.

At the old location, the museum averaged 25,000 annual visitors. By comparison, 70,000 people are expected to tour the new building during its first year. It's well on its way with a record 6,400 spectators in April and 4,300 in May. Even more are expected when the museum soon debuts its permanent exhibits.

But the site is more than an upscale building with a new-car smell. The $28 million museum combines exhibits and working laboratories, making the whole experience more interactive.

It's a combination not found at many museums, explained marketing associate Zachary Ryder. The site was deliberately designed to show the facility's eight curators at work.

Three lab windows face the lobby, where visitors can look in and see scientists at work, cleaning fossils or piecing together an ancient whale jawbone. There are displays for kids, complete with games and buttons to push. There's a 30-seat cinema showing programming that could be found on the Discovery Channel. The museum also offers opportunities to travel with curators, such as a fossil dig in Peru.

"In the old building, research and exhibits were two separate things," said Ryan Barber, the museum's director of marketing. "This ... will bring the two together for the first time. ... This is the first time the public's getting an idea of all the discoveries going on."

Inside the paleontology lab, Sarah Beth Keyser, a 19-year-old intern, works on fossils as a young boy barely tall enough to reach the window peeks inside. There are vertebrae on the counter. A dinosaur bone rests on a lab table. But on this day, Keyser's focus is sorting through sharks' teeth from an excavation site in Caroline County. A crusty swath of ash-colored earth rests in a plaster cast, where partially exposed teeth jut like rocks embedded in concrete. The staff is trying to figure out why different animal remains are in this section of sediment -- and what killed them.

In the meantime, kids in the main room, or Great Hall, often wave to Keyser as she works, or shout questions through the glass.

"Are you a scientist?" they often ask.

The lab next door holds the Scanning Electron Microscope, one of the most powerful on the East Coast. Curators use the tool for examining fossils. In the future, school groups will be able to connect to the SEM through the Internet to see it at work.

And in the archaeology lab, curator Elizabeth Moore studies artifacts from prehistoric Indian villages found in Maryland, Pennsylvania and near the Roanoke River in Salem. A black countertop holds tiny, yellowed bones lined in rows -- bones belonging to pigs, sheep and chickens from a Maryland tavern where the founding fathers drank ale and griped about the British.

"Our Colonial ancestors chewed on ribs," Moore explained. "Lots of ribs."

Months after moving, Moore still seems in awe of the building. The old schoolhouse lacked light, space and locked storage areas. Cabinets were stacked to the ceiling and the roof had a habit of leaking on objects.

"We've gone from being really crammed ... to being in this fantastic building," she said.

Here, the Great Hall is a big, open space, a place where visitors snap pictures of a golf-ball-sized moon rock brought home from the Apollo 17 mission.

Here, children such as Jackson and Nicholas Ward oohed and pointed to gems in tall glass cases -- turquoise and amethyst and a clump of calcite that blossoms like cauliflower.

"Doesn't that look like gumdrops?" mom Kristie Ward asked as she motioned to prehnite, a green rock whose crystals make it sparkle like sugar.

The Roanoke family hopes to return when the permanent exhibits are open. For now, those displays lie nearly ready, blocked by a velvet rope.

The soon-to-open exhibits will feature items curators uncovered from six sites across the state, showing how the land changed over time. The "Uncovering Virginia" display, for instance, explores geology and how the local climate resembled Alaska's during the ice age. A U-shaped mastodon tusk hangs high on the wall, above the fossilized footprint of a giant sloth. Mastodons bellow from an animated screen, and the sloth, standing on its hind legs, eats from trees.

Although the area is limited to tour groups, Sebert and Judy Keiffer, along with their grandson, 8-year-old Lucas Fain, got to see the display on their 37th anniversary. Judy Keiffer joked she came with her "old bones," her husband, but got serious when talking about how Lucas enjoyed the exhibit.

"It should entice kids to be more interested in their environment," the Christiansburg resident said.

In addition to the displays, the museum offers summer programs, sleepovers and Friday afternoon kids' activities.

On this day, 8-year-old Zebedee Bousman stood at the activity table, eyes lowered and lips pursed as he colored a paper whale with a marker. Hovering above was the museum's whale fossil, 14 million years old and 30 feet long, hanging from the 40-foot ceiling.

Zebedee drew a dot eye and a smiley face on his whale, then showed his parents, who cooed over his creation.

Judson, the educator on duty, paced the Great Hall as the family left. He pointed to Big Al as visitors came and went. He showed off the fossil's deformed toe and once-broken rib and told the same joke, living proof that here in the museum, history repeats itself.

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