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Museum employees are happily busy ahead of weekend opening
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Nancy Moncrief, the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s curator of mammals, shows the skeleton of a whale mounted inside the museum’s new building on Starling Avenue in Martinsville. The skeleton is believed to be about 14 million years old.

Monday, March 26, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

On the outside, the new Virginia Museum of Natural History building on Starling Avenue looks completed, but inside, construction still is going on.

Late last week, exhibits were being assembled and furniture and restaurant equipment were being placed in the coffee shop. Electrical cords were strewn across floors and the smell of sawdust was in the air.

In terms of construction, "we're going right up to the last minute," said Executive Director Tim Gette. But all of the work will be finished, he said, when the museum opens Friday with a dedication ceremony that is part of a "100 Hour Celebration" of opening events.

He said the museum expects to receive its certificate of occupancy for the new building Tuesday.

The 89,127-square-foot building is five times as large as the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue, where the museum has been located since it opened in 1984 as a private institution. The state acquired the museum four years later.

The $13 million cost of the new building is being paid through the Virginia Public Building Authority bond bill signed by former Gov. Mark Warner a few years ago.

Jim Beard, curator of earth sciences, said the opening of the new building seems like "a major life-changing event" since the staff has been striving for a new facility - one designed for museum use - for about 20 years.

Museum employees are jubilant that the new building is a reality. Now, they are focusing on getting the public to enjoy what they already have started to appreciate as they move in.

"It's not good enough to have a great museum if people don't know about us," Gette said, noting that the museum is increasing its marketing efforts.

Gette said the museum attracted about 30,000 visitors last year. Studies show that with the new building and high-quality exhibits, the museum has the potential to attract 80,000 to 140,000 visitors yearly, including more people from beyond Southside and southwestern Virginia.

The new building should help people elsewhere in the state realize that the museum, though it is in Martinsville and not a large city such as Richmond or Norfolk, is an official state museum, Gette said.

"We are Virginia's natural history museum," he emphasized. "There is no other natural history museum in Virginia."�

Collections at the museum are "a record of the state's past, both human and nonhuman," said Beard. "These things no longer would exist if we (the museum) didn't exist."�

Gette estimated that the United States has about 100 natural history museums. But Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammals, estimated that less that 30 are state-sponsored museums.

Some of those state-sponsored museums are run by universities and are more focused on educating scientists than on educating the public, Moncrief indicated.

Because the Virginia Museum of Natural History puts so much emphasis on educating the public, staff said, its presence in Martinsville greatly enhances the local quality of life, which could spur economic development.

Beard said the museum, together with the uptown historic district, Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI), New College Institute and a planned sports complex eventually are "going to make Martinsville irresistible" to companies.


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