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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
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New director at VMNH will work to keep things fresh
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Joe Keiper began his new job as executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville earlier this month. Keiper moved to the area from Cleveland and said he is looking forward to settling in and to his opportunities at the museum. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A museum should always be evolving so it can attract repeat visitors as well as new ones, according to Joe Keiper.

Long-term exhibits are fine, he said, but ultimately "you do not want things to be permanent" so visitors do not see the same historical specimens over and over again, losing interest in the museum in the process.

Keiper, who began his new job as executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) earlier this month, said museums should strive to regularly develop new exhibits, as well as interpret artifacts in current exhibits in new ways "so people have something new to touch, to see and to read."�

When that happens, they are more likely to visit a museum frequently and support it financially through admission fees and donations, he indicated.

Keiper said he wants to find ways for VMNH visitors to "dig a little deeper" into exhibits to learn more about natural history topics that they find most fascinating. Someone looking at a particular exhibit would be able to delve into it at different degrees, depending upon his interest in it, he said.

He also wants to hear from area residents so they can "give their input" into ways the museum in Martinsville can remain enticing to visitors.

VMNH is Virginia's official natural history repository and draws visitors from throughout the state and beyond. Keiper intends for the museum to develop new methods - one possibility he gave is new festivals - that will convince people in other areas to drive perhaps a few hours to the museum.

Keiper still is learning about the area. He said that Henry County-Martinsville may not have as many attractions as larger places where other museums of VMNH's stature are located. But it has more features than many localities of its size, and the ones it has are unique, he said.

Mentioning the museum, Piedmont Arts Association and opportunities for recreation along the Smith River and local trails as examples, he added that the area is "a good place to come and spend a long weekend."�

"My mouth is watering" for those recreational opportunities, Keiper said, noting that he is an outdoors enthusiast.

He said the museum must work with local government and tourism officials to promote the community to tourists.

Still, Keiper said he recognizes that due to Martinsville's distance from more heavily populated areas, such as Richmond or Tidewater, "we are going to be serving primarily a much more local audience" than museums in larger cities.

For that reason, he said VMNH must continue placing a lot of emphasis on being involved in the community, such as taking part in science and natural history learning activities in local schools.

A SCIENTIST AND AN ADMINISTRATOR

Keiper, 41, previously was director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio. He said he was somewhat familiar with VMNH through its scientists' research.

VMNH has an "undeniable" reputation among natural historians as an institution that does quality research, he emphasized.

He was happy with his job in Cleveland and was not looking for another. But he found out about the VMNH director's job opening and was intrigued. The more he learned about the museum, the more "I got excited," he recalled.

Among things he found exciting, he said, was VMNH's move into its modern building on Starling Avenue three years ago, the museum's presence and role in a small community and the progress it has made since opening in 1984.

"There are not many successful museums that are only 25 years old," said Keiper, who was born in Germany but grew up in New Jersey.

He decided to apply for the VMNH job, he said, because "it is a refreshing opportunity to help this institution" grow and prosper.

Keiper received a bachelor's degree from Bloomfield College, a master's degree from Slippery Rock University and a doctorate in biology from Kent State University.

In Cleveland, he became known as the "bug guy" due to his extensive interest in, and knowledge of, insects.

Keiper speaks enthusiastically about basically everything, from his new job to his new co-workers to his ideas for VMNH. But he really gets excited when he starts talking about bugs.

He noted, for example, that there are roughly 20,000 species of flies, and "all have a unique role in nature."�

And, yes, he can identify every species.

But "I can't do it by sight" all the time, he admitted - he uses reference books when necessary.

His bug knowledge has enabled him to participate in more than 30 homicide investigations, such as when police discovered insects on decaying corpses. He said he is willing to help local law enforcement officials if needed.

He plans to give a local lecture on insects at some point in the future.

As a scientist moving into administration, Keiper said he knows his job as VMNH's new director will "take me away from the lab bench" as he handles other aspects of museum operations, such as fundraising.

But whenever he can, he plans to visit VMNH scientists in their labs and talk to them about their work, maybe lending a hand if he has time.

"I want to keep my finger in" science being done at the museum, he said. The more he knows what is happening at VMNH, the better he can promote the museum and its work, he said.

 

 
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