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March 30, 2007
Get Ready, Get Set... Friday, March 30, 2007

By JEFF WRIGHT - Bulletin Staff Writer

Today is the day that the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the city of Martinsville have been anticipating for years.

A dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. will start the opening festivities for the new VMNH facility on Starling Avenue. The ceremony will be held outdoors, in front of the $26 million facility, and is open to the public.

At the ceremony, a plaque will be unveiled that recognizes that the museum is opening during the same year as the 400th anniversary of Jamestown.

In addition, state and local politicians, museum officials and representatives from one of the museum's partners, the National Geological Museum of China in Beijing, will take part in the ceremony.

Gov. Tim Kaine will be present at a sold-out gala tonight at the museum.

And Saturday morning at 9, the museum will open to the public.

"I think they (visitors) are going to be totally overwhelmed" when they walk through the doors and into the newest, most state-of-the-art facility of its kind in the area, said Tim Gette, the museum's executive director.

Building crews scurried about the new facility toward week's end in a "last-minute flurry of activity" to put the finishing touches on the 89,127-square-foot museum, he said.

People who think a world-class facility cannot exist in their own backyard should step through the doors on Saturday, when the museum celebrates its public grand-opening, and they will be amazed, Gette said.

A 14-million-year-old, 30-foot long Eobalaenoptera skeleton, an ancestor of the modern whale discovered just north of Richmond, suspended from the 40-foot ceiling and a two-ton cast of an Allosaurus found in Wyoming greet visitors as they enter the focal point and main area of the facility, called The Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont Great Hall.

Also in the Great Hall is the "Minerals: Near and Far, Fancy and Functional" exhibit housed in custom-made column display cases.

The minerals on display are some of the rarest in the world. Some come from as far as Ontario, Congo, Mexico and Russia, and some come from just around the corner in Henry County, said Dr. James Beard, earth sciences curator at the museum.

As well as VMNH specimens, collections from Virginia Tech and the Smithsonian Institution will be on display.

The display cases were designed specifically for the VMNH by the Belgian company Mayvert, which has designed cases for other world-class museums such as the Louvre in Paris, Gette said. In addition to a high-tech lighting system that will make the specimens gleam and glitter, the cases feature a suction system that creates an airtight seal, which is vital to preserving the collections.

Also on display will be the efforts of the museum's curators and scientists, whose work can been seen by visitors through walls of windows that look from the Great Hall into three of their labs.

The labs, which will be "working labs" in which scientists will bring specimens from the field to the museum to study and work on, will be another part of the museum, rather than behind closed doors as it is in many museums, Gette said.

It all "goes back to the philosophy" of what the museum wants to accomplish, he said.

"We want to challenge young visitors who come to this museum," he said. "If (visitors) see scientists working, doing what they do, hopefully they will want to do that too."

In addition to everything the Great Hall has to offer visitors, they will be able to see the feathered dinosaur exhibit on loan from the National Geological Museum of China and browse the more than 25,000 volumes in the museum library.

The New Moon Cafe, in the back of the museum gift shop, will be open for the grand opening, and the Hooker Furniture Theater will show 15-30 minute educational films throughout the weekend.