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Get an inside look at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

Martinsville isn’t only home to the Speedway

Inside the Harvest Foundation Hall of Ancient Life at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (Virginia Museum of Natural History)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – There’s a place where dinosaurs roam and prehistoric birds soar — and you don’t even have to leave Virginia. No time machine required, we promise.

We’re bringing you inside the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which we’re featuring along with other Martinsville landmarks as a part of our In Your Town series this week.

The decision to house the museum in Martinsville may seem random to some, but according to Joe Keiper, the executive director, it was anything but.

Back in the 1980s when the museum came to fruition, Martinsville was (and still is) recognized as a prosperous city. That, paired with the city’s central location along the southern border of the state made it the perfect location.

So, how did the museum become a reality?

Back in the ‘80s, the man who would become the founding director, Dr. Noel Boaz, saw that Virginia was losing a lot of its cultural and natural treasures to bordering states like North Carolina and Tennessee because Virginia didn’t have its own state museum of natural history.

As a way to keep those treasures within state lines, Boaz convinced the General Assembly that we should have our own place in Virginia to store those artifacts. Thus, the Virginia Museum of Natural History was born.

A museum technician prepares a fossil inside the paleontology lab (Virginia Museum of Natural History)

Keiper has been with the museum for nearly 12 years and said that he and his wife absolutely love the area.

“I love the museum first and foremost, but our community is awesome,” said Keiper.

Like a lot of other businesses, traffic to the museum took a hefty hit due to the pandemic. Keiper shared that visitation dropped around 50% during COVID’s peak.

“It was definitely a hit and we had to make adjustments in the way we do business, and we continue to make adjustments in the way that we do business,” said Keiper. “We think that people will come back as safety measures become more widespread.”

Despite the punch from the pandemic, there were some silver linings.

“There was an increase in our homeschool science and engineering academy, so more people were requesting homeschool opportunities, so we’ve been happy to serve them,” said Keiper.

With vaccinations more prevalent, people are ready to get back into the world and enjoy in-person experiences — and the museum is ready to welcome them.

Here’s a list of upcoming events that visitors can look forward to:

  • January 22, 2022
    • Opening of the special exhibit “Science of Flight”
  • March 2022
    • 34th annual Thomas Jefferson Awards (Date TBD)
  • April 23, 2022
    • Virginia Museum of Natural History Foundation Gala
  • July 22-23, 2022
    • Dino Festival

The museum will also be celebrating a first with its upcoming ‘Science of Flight’ exhibit, the museum’s first bilingual exhibit.

“When you think about nature and all the different ways that creatures have evolved to fly or glide, even back in the fossil record. We’re going to be bringing out all different kinds of examples of that from birds to bats to insects,” said Keiper. “We’ll even be talking about some of the tools that Virginia Indians used like projectiles - how did they actually develop them and engineer them in such a way that they would be effective?”

As a part of the experience, kids might even get the chance to do interactive activities like making their own paper airplanes to test out the different methods of aerodynamics.

If you live further north and Martinsville is a bit of a trek for you, don’t worry — soon, you won’t have to make the trip to see all the museum has to offer.

“We’ll always be the headquarters of natural history right here in Martinsville, but we’re now going to build a branch of our museum near the South entrance to Shenandoah National Park,” said Keiper. “It’s going to be an exhibit-heavy experience with exhibits that are based on the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge.”

Keiper said the museum is hoping to break ground on that exhibit within the next three years.


About the Author:

Samantha Smith joined WSLS 10’s award-winning digital team as a digital content producer in July 2018.