The Virginia Museum of Natural History has become as much of a force in the scientific world during its 25-year existence as larger, more established museums in its field, according to world-renowned scientist Noel T. Boaz.
"I'm elated it's still here (in Martinsville) and has done so well" over the years, Boaz said Saturday during the museum's Founder's Day event.
A native of Martinsville, Boaz is an anthropologist, anatomist and physician who founded the museum in 1984 and served as its first director. He now is director of the International Institute for Human Evolutionary Research, which he founded in 1991 in Oregon, and teaches at a West Indies medical school.
He said the Virginia museum "compares very well" with other natural history museums throughout the nation and world and is better than some museums that have been established longer.
"The quality (of the museum) and its collections are excellent," Boaz said, and "its research is excellent."�
What makes it so good is the caliber of its curators, he said. Scientists at the museum constantly do research and travel worldwide, getting to know and collaborate with scientists around the world in the process, he noted.
As a result, he said, "the curators know their stuff" and are able to answer museum visitors' scientific questions definitively.
Scientists at some natural history museums are not always as up-to-date on what is happening in their fields, he said.
In 2007, the museum moved from a former elementary school on Douglas Avenue into a modern new building five times as large on Starling Avenue. Boaz is proud that the museum he founded has made such progress.
"The building is important," he said. However, "what goes on inside the building (the scientific research) is of equal or more importance."�
The museum is recruiting a new executive director to succeed Tim Gette, who left earlier this year to be director of a museum in his home state of Texas. To help the museum advance its contributions to natural sciences, Boaz said he thinks its next director should be "a scientist who knows how curators do their jobs" and understands their needs.
He hopes the state will put "more resources" into the museum in the future so it can expand its scientific work. For example, he said he would like to see the museum become involved in botany, the study of plants.
Also, Boaz said he hopes the museum helps pull Martinsville-Henry County out of its economic slump. He said the museum likely draws more tourists to the area than any other area attraction except the Martinsville Speedway.
He added that the museum is in a good position to lure tourists because it basically is in "the center of the state." He said it is about equidistant from the farthest eastern and western parts of Virginia, and people in Northern Virginia can drive about the same distance to Martinsville as to the beach.
As part of Founder's Day activities at the museum, Boaz gave a lecture on the evolution of human beings as it has been traced from Africa.
He said that human evolution is "a controversial subject" and did not delve into the controversy. But he said there is scientific evidence that "humans have emerged by a process of change" involving prehistoric mammals over millions of years.
"Africa seems to be the mother country of us all," regardless of what continent our ancestors came from, Boaz said.
Referring to chimpanzees and gorillas, Boaz said Africa still is home to the "anatomically closest animal relatives" to humans and is the only continent with "hominid" fossils between 2 million and 6 million years old.
A "molecular clock" developed by scientists shows the separation of human and chimpanzee lineages occurred 6 million to 7 million years ago, he said.
Boaz's lecture attracted a large crowd. He took time afterward to talk with those who attended and answer their questions.
Julia Fowler-Boynton, a Martinsville native who now lives in California, was in town Saturday and made her first visit to the museum at its Starling Avenue location. She said she came in part to see Boaz, who she knew in school.
"He's really a person who has followed his dream," she said, noting he had wanted to be a natural scientist since the fourth grade.
The museum charged Founder's Day visitors no admission. More than 300 people visited, according to Marketing Associate Zach Ryder.
"Everyone seems to love what they see," Ryder said, mentioning there were supervised tours of areas of the museum not usually open to the public.
Fowler-Boynton said the museum is "quite lovely. Everything is very nicely presented. It's just a great asset for Martinsville."�
Gary Bye of Bassett, who also visited the museum during Founder's Day, said what he likes most about the museum is that it has "something for kids and adults" alike to enjoy. He said families can have a day-long adventure there.