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Animal hall in works at VMNH
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Above, Ryan Barber, marketing and external affairs manager for the Virginia Museum of Natural History, examines a lion that will be part of an exhibit hall full of African animal specimens donated to the museum. (Bulletin photos by Mickey Powell)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A new exhibition hall at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville is attracting attention, even though it is not yet finished.

The Hahn Hall of Biodiversity officially will open Aug. 28. It features animals - the entire bodies of some; the heads of others - donated to the museum by Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr., president emeritus of Virginia Tech.

A big-game hunter, Hahn hunted the animals while on African safaris, said Ryan Barber, the museum's marketing and external affairs manager.

When it is finished, the exhibit will describe the relationships between those animals and ones found in Virginia and elsewhere in North America, he said.

It also will show how the animals interact with each other, such as specifying which are predators, which are prey and which are both, added Barber.

Museum visitors have been able to watch as the exhibits are being installed, which Barber said is "kind of neat." For instance, they have seen large animal heads hauled to the hall and mounted on walls above their heads.

"It seems to be drawing a lot of visitors" already, he said of the exhibit.

Many of the mounted heads are of species of antelope, including the impala, waterbuck, hartebeest, wildebeest, bontebok, lechwe and topi. Other animals with heads on display include a warthog, gazelle, buffalo and hippopotamus.

Full body mounts of a lion, antelope and hyena will be installed. Barber said he understands it is "pretty rare" to see a fully mounted hyena, but he does not know why. Maybe it is because they are not the nicest-looking creatures, he speculated.

All of the animals that will be on exhibit are "of very, very high quality," he added.

The body mounts will be in transparent plastic cases.

"We want people to get close to them but not touch them" in order to protect the specimens from damage, Barber said.

The exhibit hall mostly comprises a hallway leading to an exhibit area in the back of the museum. Windows across from the mounted animal heads have been covered with fabric to protect the heads from damage by sunlight.

Fiber-optic lights will be installed in front of each animal to illuminate them for events held at the museum at night, but those lights will not hurt them, according to Barber.

Signs will be installed with information about the animals, such as how certain ones' coloring protects them from predators and how some animals' feet were adapted to help them run, he said.

Video touchscreens will enable visitors to touch a picture of an animal on the screen to learn more about the animal, he noted.

The animals to initially be exhibited are all from a private collection that Hahn, who also hunted domestically, had at his home, Barber said.

Hahn is 83 and, according to Barber, his family was not interested in taking control of the collection.

When the museum was approached about the opportunity to take some of the animal specimens, "we jumped on it," Barber said.

"His preference," he said, "was to keep it (the collection) together and put it on display for people to enjoy."�

However, the animals native to North America were given to Virginia Tech while those native to Africa were given to the museum, he said.

When the exhibit hall is finished, it will contain almost 50 animal specimens donated by Hahn.

The museum plans to eventually add things of its own, such as reptile and bug specimens already in its collections, plus any animal specimens it might receive in the future, to the exhibit hall.

Along with his specimens, Hahn donated $50,000 to the museum to help develop the exhibit hall, said Barber - other than labor, it did not cost the museum anything.

"This hallway having been empty, it was nice to be able to take advantage of it" and turn it into an exhibit, he said.

The museum is on Starling Avenue in Martinsville.


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