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April 1, 2007
It's Open!

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, April 1, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The new Virginia Museum of Natural History building on Starling Avenue finally is open.

It took more than two decades of wishing, convincing state officials of the need for a new building and to build it in Martinsville, waiting for the funding necessary for construction and then waiting for construction to be finished, state officials recalled Friday afternoon during a dedication ceremony.

During a gala that evening, Gov. Tim Kaine called the museum's opening "a momentous occasion." He noted that the opening coincides with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first colony in Virginia which was established by English settlers in 1607.

The museum's opening was a long-awaited event in the state, Kaine said.

State Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr. said the spacious, modern building "has now been brought to life."

The 89,127-square-foot building is five times larger than the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue, which had housed the museum since it opened in 1985 as a private institution. It became a state institution four years later.

Executive Director Tim Gette said the new building will enable the museum to display more of its approximately 22 million specimens of natural history. For that reason, the museum will become a must-see attraction not only for area residents, but for people from all over Virginia and elsewhere, he said.

Museum researchers and curators "now have a world-class facility, one that is surpassed only by their talent," Gette said.

"This museum ... can stand up to any museum of its size, anywhere in the world," said Bryant.

"It is a Smithsonian-class institution," and it is "only fitting" that the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville.

Both museums promote innovation and scientific discovery through using the entire world for a research laboratory, said Alma Douglas, coordination manager for the Smithsonian.

Having toured the new building, Bryant said what impressed him most was "the amount of educational space ... targeted to elementary (school) kids."

He said the building will be "a long-lasting legacy" to Virginia's natural history since today's children will visit the museum and learn, and when they grow up, they will bring their children to the museum to learn, and so on.

"What it's all about is the next generation" of Virginians, Armstrong said.

Kaine said the museum will help Virginians "understand our place in the cosmos."

Educational studies show that "we, as Americans, are falling behind in science," said Del. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham. "This museum represents a commitment to the sciences."

Children visiting the museum can learn about scientific discoveries directly from the scientists making the discoveries, which could inspire the children to become scientists when they grow up, Hurt said.

It will be three or four weeks before all of the museum's exhibits are fully installed, Gette said. Until then, visitors can watch the final touches being made to the exhibits, he said.

Exhibits at the Douglass Avenue location mostly were designed there, said Dr. Richard Hoffman, the museum's assistant director of biological sciences. Those in the new building have been designed by professional exhibit designers and feature modern electronic instructional tools, he pointed out.

"We've raised the bar in the art of museum exhibitry," he said.

Permanent exhibits include "Uncovering Virginia," "How Nature Works: Life," and "How Nature Works: Rocks." The museum also features special exhibits that will be on display for various lengths of time. Two on display at the old location that will resume at the new building on April 6 focus on dinosaurs that were native to China.

George Lyle, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, noted that the museum had about 30,000 visitors last year. Studies have shown the new building has the potential to lure 80,000 to 140,000 visitors a year, he said.

That will help the area's economic development by boosting tourism, Hurt speculated.

Kaine called the museum "a spectacular economic development incentive."

"The impact of this wonderful museum will be felt far beyond Martinsville," said Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville. He said the new building is "a symbol of what we can achieve" in efforts to revive the local economy.

State Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway, recalled that "we've had challenge after challenge" in making the new building a reality.

Some lawmakers wanted to move the museum to the state capital, he said. Yet there were enough lawmakers who realized that "good museums do not necessarily have to be located in Richmond," Armstrong added.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Rocky Mount, attributed construction of the new building to support the museum received from recent governors and the late House Speaker A.L. Philpott of Bassett.

In terms of state funding provided through the governors, Goode said, "we didn't always get what we wanted from them," but at least the museum got enough "to keep the ball rolling."

Bryant especially credited former Gov. Mark Warner. "He started it all" (the new building's construction) by signing the Virginia Public Building Authority bond bill a few years ago, the natural resources secretary said. The building's $13 million construction cost will be funded through the legislation.

Still, "if this community had not been totally committed, we wouldn't be here today," Goode said.

Through an ongoing fund-raising campaign, Lyle said, the VMNH Foundation so far has raised about $3.3 million in private donations toward its $5 million goal to help fund the permanent exhibits. That amount includes $1 million provided by The Harvest Foundation.

Hoffman, who also is curator of recent invertebrates, came to the museum in the late 1980s. Referring to the opening of the new building, he said it seems like "my entire scientific career has been a prelude to this particular moment in time."

"Our job now is to help the museum achieve its fullest potential" by helping Virginians learn about natural history, Lyle said.

During the dedication, a commemorative plaque at the front entrance was unveiled.

The choir of First Baptist Church, which is beside the museum, provided entertainment.