News Column

Be a keeper, vet at Virginia Living Museum's newest permanent exhibit

June 21, 2014

By Nicole Paitsel, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)



June 21--Everything is "awesome" at the Virginia Living Museum's newest "Wild and Well" exhibit, according to 6-year-old Gage Hawkins.

"I always wonder about animals and how they look on the inside, and this is awesome!" the Newport News first-grader said as he explored the exhibit a few days before its official opening date. Hawkins was particularly interested in the X-rays showing the skeletons of animals that live at the Newport News museum.

"Wild and Well" is the first indoor permanent exhibit added at the Virginia Living Museum since it opened in its current location in 2005. The new exhibit opened to the public on Saturday, June 21. The renovated children's garden and a new children's nature playground opened in April 2013.

The new interactive play area is designed for preschoolers and young school-aged children to experience the jobs of animal keepers and wildlife veterinarians. Children can prepare meals for the animals in a large kitchen area, tend to animals (stuffed versions of the real animals residing at the museum), give sick and well check-ups, look at blood and cell images under microscopes and watch videos of museum keepers and veterinarians talking about their jobs.

"We've set up the framework, but all of the real magic will come from the children's imaginations," said Fred Farris, deputy executive director of the museum. "The neat thing is that everything is designed to mimic exactly what goes on here at the museum."

In fact, the $75,000 exhibit was imagined and designed entirely by Virginia Living Museum staff, a rarity in the museum world. Often, exhibits -- both permanent and traveling -- are designed and installed by an outside contractor.

Farris said that designing the exhibit himself gave him the flexibility to base everything on what actually goes on behind the scenes at the living museum. Diet cards on mini clipboards tell children what an opossum eats or how to make a worm salad for an omnivore like the raccoon, for example. Veterinarian checklists tell the tiny pretenders exactly how to care for an ailing snake or injured bird.

"Every department got together and threw out ideas," said Travis Land, herpetology curator for the museum. "We discussed all of the different aspects of husbandry (caring for animals) and how that can be translated into an interactive exhibit for kids."

The new exhibit replaces the geology center on the bottom floor of the museum.

"While there were ways to interact in that (geology) center, it wasn't as interactive as we wanted it to be," Farris said.

Benches near the new exhibit will allow parents to watch their children play and learn.

"This is meant to be a place where you can come and stay for hours, and you can come back to this exhibit again and again," he said. "There will always be something new to do, more to learn."

The exhibit was funded through an anonymous grant and an ongoing donation from Riverside Health System. The city of Newport News provides some operating funds for the museum, but did not offer extra money for the new exhibit, officials said.

The living museum also is hosting an animatronic dinosaurs exhibit this summer and has special programming in conjunction with it, including a live puppetry show and an outdoor dig space where children can find real fossils and take them home.

While the traveling dinosaur exhibit is designed to boost tourism and daily admission rates, the new permanent exhibit was put together with memberships in mind.

"Our primary target audience is families with children (ages) 8 and younger," Farris said. "This gives them even more to do. They can stay here at the museum even longer."

In addition, through slide shows of photos on large television screens and videos, the museum's behind-the-scenes operations will be more visible.

(The keepers and veterinarians) are the heart of what we do here at the museum," Farris said. "We are accredited because of the high standards we have. This gives us a way to showcase our keepers and vets. And maybe we will inspire some of the children to pursue jobs with animals, too."

Paitsel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4737.

More online

Find more photos of the new Virginia Living Museum exhibit, "Wild and Well," at dailypress.com/features/family.

Want to go?

What: Wild and Well, a permanent, interactive exhibit for children to explore the roles of animal keeper and wildlife veterinarian

Where: Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News

When: The exhibit opened to the public on Saturday, June 21. It will remain in the space permanently.

Cost: Admission to the museum is $17 for adults, $13 for children

Information: 595-1900 or thevlm.org.

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(c)2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Visit the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) at www.dailypress.com

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Source: Daily Press (Newport News, VA)


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