Walking into the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium in 1966, you’d be greeted by a stuffed bald eagle in the Museum’s lobby. With staffers and volunteers ready to highlight the key exhibits, you’d circle through the Museum’s attractions, and maybe even stop by the planetarium for a look into the heavens. Located in a small brown building in the woods, this museum opened a world of natural science to the families of the lower Peninsula.
Although it had a smaller footprint, smaller staff and smaller exhibits, even in 1966 you could see the values of the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium — values that are still alive today at the Virginia Living Museum.
In 1958, Wason, a leader in the Warwick Rotary Club, visited the Charlotte Nature Museum in North Carolina and was struck by the experience. He wished to bring the concept of nature education back to Newport News so his own neighbors could appreciate and learn about the world around them.
“I’ve had an appreciation for nature since my early days and the idea of building a nature center was in my mind,” recalled Wason.
Wason’s idea for the center was meant to serve the community, so it took serious community effort to get it off the ground.
In August, 1963, Wason connected with Mary Lou Hatten, the president of the Junior League of Hampton Roads, to talk about his interest in establishing a children’s nature museum. With the Junior League on board, Wason also sought support and funding from the Warwick Rotary and together these local groups quickly raised $150,000 to build a nature center in Deer Park on 21 acres leased from the City of Newport News.
Wason’s vision of a nature museum was becoming a reality. Ground broke to build the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium in January 1966, funded by the Warwick Rotary Club and the Junior League of Hampton Roads.
Wason recalled the great deal of support he had from local leaders and the city, noting that he was able to lease the land at just $1 per year. “This was an absolutely coup to make this project an immediate success,” said Wason. “The rest is history.”
From its founding, the Museum rooted its values in education and dedication to the natural world. Its first board, with Wason serving as president, carefully laid down its original mission:
- The Center is dedicated to developing in young and old alike an appreciation for nature and all its creatures.
- At a time of ecological crisis it must be counted real plus to have an organization dedicated to visually stating the importance of the natural world to man’s well-being – both physical and mental.
- The Center is dedicated to teaching by doing. Our goal is to give the visitor a three dimensional experience; a chance to manipulate, touch and do.
This initial mission survived and thrived during the ensuing 50 years, inspiring and anchoring all Museum decisions to preserve the Museum’s intent and values.
As a non-profit, the Museum relied heavily on the dedication of its volunteers right from day-one. Just like today, a core team of volunteers supported every facet of the Peninsula Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium.
Noting the volunteers’ tenacity, the Museum’s first Executive Director Brad Hawkins explained, “Volunteer time and effort is greatly needed and appreciated, for without them we could not have accomplished what we have to date, nor could we make any advancement in the future.”
And although it wasn’t the size that the Museum is today, even during these early years the Peninsula Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium featured many exhibits needing the help of volunteers. In its first year alone, nearly 70,000 visitors took advantage of Newport News’ latest attraction.
Opening as the first planetarium on the Peninsula, it projected stars, planets, moons and the sun onto its dome, producing sky motions to reflect the earth’s revolution and rotation in space.
In the Museum’s main building, visitors learned about Virginia wildlife through dioramas and interactions with living creatures. Exhibits devoted to plants and animals native to Virginia included stuffed animals. In addition to the exhibits, the Museum housed an animal care facility that allowed staff to tend to injured wildlife.
During its early years, much of the Museum’s attractions were planned and constructed by volunteers. One of the first exhibits, a diorama on Eastern Woodland Indians, was on loan from the Charlotte Nature Museum, the same museum where Harry Wason’s vision got its start. Staff and volunteers worked to bring fresh dioramas to the Museum’s exhibits regularly.
But real excitement was outside.
Families and school tours lined up to go on the guided walks through the nature trails behind the Museum, taking in Virginia’s wildlife in Deer Park.
Both outdoors and indoors, the Museum acted as a fun, educational opportunity for students on field trips.
In the 1966 Annual Report, school officials were quoted as saying that the Museum provided “a service unparalleled in this area” due to its school programs. Teachers could use the Museum’s classrooms to teach about natural science topics using demonstrations and specimens provided by the Museum. In its early years, the Museum primarily supported the Newport News, York County and Poquoson school systems.
As its first decade went by, the Museum continued to grow in popularity and size.
Two years after opening its doors, a shop facility, constructed by members of the Warwick Rotary Club, was added and later converted into an aquarium exhibit in 1970. The E.K. Phillips aquarium, named for Newport News resident E. K. Phillips, included a 3,000 gallon freshwater tank and a 700 gallon saltwater tank, home to local fish found throughout the state.
Community involvement continued to bolster the Museum and its activities. The Warwick Rotary continuously provided financial support and labor for new projects, including a Haunted House extravaganza in 1974.
Soon the Museum needed more space to accommodate its visitors. With donations from local organizations, in 1976 it built a 7,000 square-foot addition, providing room for programs in physical and applied sciences. With the expansion came a new name, the Peninsula Nature and Science Center.
With a fresh building and new name, the Peninsula Nature and Science Center was ready for its next decade in Newport News.