For the Junior Science Museum and Planetarium, its second decade marked a second wind of interest in Virginia wildlife and science.
In 1976, the newly renamed Peninsula Nature and Science Center opened a 7,000-square-foot, $60,000 addition. Beyond its wildlife exhibits and planetarium, the Museum now offered programs in the physical and applied sciences.
Armed with new exhibits and an accreditation from the American Association of Museums, the Peninsula Nature and Science Center was ready to ramp up its offerings for the Peninsula and beyond.
New Decade, New Attractions
With an ever-growing audience, Museum staff and volunteers brainstormed ways to educate and entertain visitors. Going beyond the museum walls, new initiatives took visitors to see wildlife in its natural habitat.
Beginning in the spring of 1977, the Museum took visitors to the far corners of Virginia to see the state’s wildlife in action. The Peninsula Nature and Science Center hosted its first Spring Safaris, taking visitors to the Great Dismal Swamp, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, plus Newport News Park for a special nocturnal excursion.
After a successful first round, the Museum extended the safaris to explore the National Zoo and National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the South Florida Wilderness—the Museum’s biggest trip that included hiking, camping and paddling through the Everglades. The Safaris were so popular that they became a regular on the Museum’s yearly calendar, and staff researched new and exciting destinations for guests to see wildlife throughout the east coast.
For visitors staying close to home, the Museum hosted others ways to get up-close and personal with nature.
In 1976, the Museum launched an annual Rent-a-Duck event, which paired ducklings with local families who would care for them for five weeks. In its first year, Rent-a-Duck sponsored 195 baby mallards, with even higher numbers in 1977 and beyond.
If you liked looking at ducks but didn’t want to foster them, the Museum’s push for wildlife art was a good alternative.
Marrying art and science, in April 1978 the Museum hosted the works of more than 40 artists, carvers and photographers for its exhibition “The Artist as Naturalist.” The artwork represented nature and wildlife from Eastern Virginia, including some beautiful paintings of local waterfowl.
In an interview for The Smithfield Times, Nature Center Director William C. Bradshaw explained the close relationship between nature and art. “The artist helps us see our surroundings with a special significance, for he captures an instant of nature by freezing a moment in time,” said Bradshaw. “In doing so he draws us to the deeper beauty and order of nature which is constantly here awaiting our attention.”
Art work has continued to play an important role in the Museum. In 1986, the Guild of the Peninsula Nature and Science Center hosted the Hampton Roads Waterfowl and Wildlife Festival, which included exhibits and sales of wood carvings, oils, taxidermied waterfowl and stained glass from east coast artists.
Switching from art to tech, the Museum also partnered with local groups to expand its technological offerings, reflecting the growing influence of technology in American households during this time.
With computers becoming a popular tool for professionals and students, the Peninsula Nature and Science Center hosted a Computer Expo Weekend in February 1978. At the expo, members of the Computer Club of the Peninsula displayed and demonstrated computers for both home and business use. Club members helped more than 1,000 attendees learn how to use computers for financial management, tutoring and even gaming.Bringing tech to kids, in 1981 the Junior League of Hampton Roads pledged $25,000 to provide for the Museum’s latest expansion: the Curiosity Corner. This 2,000-square-foot addition provided hands-on exhibits and featured computers, a robot, a mock television studio and mechanical hands used in handling radioactive and other materials.
Describing the Curiosity Corner’s features, Center Director Larry Miller told the Times-Herald, “We’re trying to make it a fun place. They’re toys, really scientific toys.”
The planetarium also provided new offerings to educate growing numbers. In the early 1980s, the Museum’s planetarium saw nearly a 100 percent increase in school and public show attendance. New shows were designed by staff to teach visitors about astronomical theories while still having fun.
One popular show focused on how early man used the moon and stars’ movement to track time. Led by the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, viewers wandered through the theories behind planetary movement and the use of monthly calendars.
Exhibits were designed to educate—and entertain—visitors of all ages. To make science fun, the Museum hosted “Science Circuses” with guest scientists and dynamic exhibits for the whole family. September 1978 marked the first “Science Circus.” Christopher Newport College professors performed experiments and demonstrations with water chemistry and air pressure. The Museum also made attendees dizzy with displays on optical illusions using color and motion, mixing education with entertainment.
Bringing Life to the Museum
In 1977, the Peninsula Nature and Science Center became the 10th museum in Virginia to gain accreditation from the American Association of Museums—bolstering its reputation and attendance numbers.
With visitors coming in droves, in 1981 the Peninsula Nature and Science Center raised $200,000 for another expansion project, bringing the center to 17,500-square-feet. Lieutenant Governor Charles Robb presided over the opening of the newly expanded Museum, which now had room for new classrooms, science exhibits halls and a large lobby.
This expansion helped meet the attendance needs at the time, topping nearly 70,000 in 1981. But ever-growing numbers still needed a more significant solution.
Rapidly reaching the limitations of the existing facility, in 1983 the Museum began a study of long-range plans. The little brown building in the woods could no longer serve the surging number of attendees, so the Board of Trustees reviewed its location, its exhibits and its mission to see what the Museum’s future would hold.
After months of planning and research, an ad hoc committee of the center’s trustees, independent consultants and community leaders approved a truly unique idea for the Museum.
Final approval was given to the concept of becoming a “living museum,” modeled after the renowned Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. As a living museum, the center would combine aspects of a science museum, botanical garden, zoological park, nature center, aquarium and planetarium—a far cry from the Museum’s stuffed birds and dioramas during its early years.
Work began to transform the Peninsula Nature and Science Center into America’s first “living museum” east of the Mississippi River. And word spread. Museum leaders received nearly a dozen requests from nature centers across the country for information on how to create their own living museum.
To accommodate the new concept’s offerings—both living and non-living—the Museum underwent a total renovation in 1986 and reopened as the Virginia Living Museum in 1987. Attendance at the new museum jumped 300% compared to the previous year. Finally, the Museum had the room it needed to serve the Peninsula and visiting attendees, ready to highlight Virginia’s wildlife in all its forms.