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McAuliffe gets natural history lesson at VMNH
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Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) discusses the work of the Virginia Museum of Natural History during his tour of the Martinsville facility on Friday. Above, he is shown in a VMNH lab with museum Executive Director Joe Keiper.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Gov. Terry McAuliffe got a close-up tour of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) while visiting Martinsville on Friday.

McAuliffe, who was sworn into office on Jan. 11, said afterward that the museum is “really spectacular,” and he vowed to help “keep it going” strong.

“Industries will love this!” he said, alluding to the idea that the museum is an important local amenity that could attract companies to the area.

Rachel Thomas, McAuliffe’s press secretary, said she understands he has visited the museum before but she did not know when or why.

Apparently, his Friday visit was the first time he had been able to examine the museum’s exhibits and operations in detail.

He learned about whale bones and other relics, some as much as 14 million years old, discovered by scientists from the museum at the Carmel Church quarry site in Caroline County.

Alton “Butch” Dooley, the museum’s paleontology curator, estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 fossil bones have been found at the quarry.

“We’ve only excavated about 10 percent of the site,” Dooley said, adding that Carmel Church is regarded as “one of the richest sites in the country” for fossils.

McAuliffe asked how scientists determine the age of fossils. Dooley said it involves analyzing algae found on them.

“We try to brag ... as much as we can” about fossils the museum’s scientists have found at Carmel Church, said VMNH Executive Director Joe Keiper.

In educating people about Virginia’s history, “I feel fossils of the state are just as important” as Native American or Civil War artifacts that have been discovered, Keiper said.

As McAuliffe looked at bones that were excavated, VMNH Board of Trustees Chairman Missy Neff Gould, who knows McAuliffe personally, commented, “I knew he’d dig this” — no pun intended.

“He’s such a curious person,” said Gould, of Danville.

In the museum’s paleontology lab, McAuliffe watched the staff assemble a replica of a giant beaver skeleton on loan to VMNH.

“Very few of these skeletons are in the world,” so it is important to make replicas, Keiper told the governor.

Because many of the museum’s relics are extremely fragile and sensitive to temperature and humidity changes, many of the relics on display actually are cast models made from various materials. The real ones stay in storage.

However, the models are so detailed and life-like that scientists can use them in research, museum officials said.

As a souvenir of his visit, the museum presented McAuliffe with a cast model of a whale flipper bone discovered in Caroline County.

“Holy cow!” McAuliffe exclaimed upon seeing a collection of antelopes in the museum’s Hahn Hall of Biodiversity. The collection, donated by Virginia Tech President Emeritus Dr. Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr., features animals that Hahn hunted on visits to Africa.

McAuliffe posed for a photo with a group of children touring the museum. He also visited with children playing on the Hooker Furniture Discovery Reef, modeled after a wooden ship.

“School groups are important to us,” Keiper told him. “We enjoy having them over. They bring a lot of energy to what we do.”

McAuliffe came to the Martinsville area to announce that Kilgour Industries Ltd., a British supplier of products to aerospace firms, will create 155 jobs and invest $27.3 million in its first U.S. facility, to be located at the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek industrial park in Henry County.

Keiper described Friday as being “a great day for Southern Virginia” in that he announced the coming of a new job-creating company and saw the operations of a state institution that also has become a local institution.

By McAuliffe examining the collections and exhibits, Keiper said, “it becomes tangible” to him how important the museum is to Virginia.

He said he is optimistic that McAuliffe will be able to secure the funds needed by the museum to prosper in the future.


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