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March 25, 2007
VMNH Poised to Open

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, March 25, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer


The world's newest - and therefore, perhaps the most modern - natural history museum is here in Martinsville.

People who have seen the new Virginia Museum of Natural History building on Starling Avenue, both inside and out, have been astonished that such a modern building is located in a small city, not in a large metropolitan area, said Executive Director Tim Gette.

Upon seeing the building, they surmise "we're not in Martinsville anymore," Gette said, paraphrasing Dorothy's comment in "The Wizard of Oz."?

"This is a world-class facility," said Jim Beard, curator of earth sciences. "It looks like a museum. It feels like a museum."

At 89,127 square feet, the new building is five times as large as the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue, where the museum has been located since it opened in 1984.

That means more space not only for exhibits, but also larger, more modern exhibits, museum staff pointed out.

In addition, "our collections will be more accessible" to visiting scientists, Gette said. Staff will be able to retrieve relics more easily, and there will be more room in which scientists can examine them.

The new building, which opens Friday to invited guests and Saturday to the public, also is more technologically advanced than the old school building.

For example, it has infrastructure that lets staff better control temperature and humidity levels inside. That is an important factor in preserving various types of relics, such as skin and tissue of ancient animals, said Curator of Mammals Nancy Moncrief.

She recalled times in the past when cooling equipment shut down because the electricity failed, such as during thunderstorms. Not to worry anymore - when power failures occur in the future, an emergency generator at the new building will turn on automatically, she said.

Beard noted that the new building has a sophisticated security system that will lessen the chance of theft or damage to collections. In the old school, he said, visitors often were able to wander into restricted areas, unintentionally for the most part.

The museum has about 22 million specimens of natural history to protect, Gette emphasized.

Just as having a state museum makes Martinsville unique among small cities, exhibits in the Starling Avenue building will make the Virginia Museum of Natural History unique among museums of its kind.

In deciding on exhibits, Beard said, museum staff visited similar museums elsewhere and "we realized that we wanted to do things differently."

So, the exhibits will focus on nature as it pertains to Virginia and processes of nature, not just on the appearances of natural things, he said.

"I think we are the first natural history museum that's tried to do it (focus on processes) on a dedicated basis," Beard added.

Visitors generally will not be allowed to touch actual relics because they are extremely fragile. However, they will be allowed to touch some exhibits.

Those that can be touched will have reproductions of relics. Yet the design firm that created the exhibits, Reich + Petch, reproduced relics in such fine detail that researchers could examine reproductions and come to the same conclusions as if they were to see the actual relics, museum curators said.

Some of the exhibits will be designed in ways that allow visitors to interpret aspects of natural history for themselves.

Scientists "don't know all the answers" to questions about Virginia's natural history, said Moncrief.

Understanding of natural history constantly is evolving, Beard said.

"That is why when you ask a scientist a question, you never get a straight answer," he laughed.