On November 13, 1966, a group of more than 100 Hampton Roads residents stood in Deer Park to celebrate the opening of the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium. Bundled in coats and hats, the crowd gathered to hear Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. speak of the new museum, a 5,500 square-foot building that cost just $121,000.
Little did the crowd know that this little brown building in the woods would evolve into the Virginia Living Museum—an evolution that began with the Museum’s early founders.
Securing the Team and the Tools
In August 2015, Virginia Living Museum Executive Director Page Hayhurst sat down with two of the Museum’s founders to explore its beginning.
“It started with my dad educating me on nature when I was a young boy,” said Harry Wason, who sparked the idea of a nature museum in Newport News. “I give credit to my father for instilling in me an appreciation of nature. I always kept that with me.”
Wason, now retired and living in Williamsburg, spoke with Hayhurst and fellow founder Mary Sherwood Holt to look back on the Museum’s transformation as it reaches its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Wason always had an interest in nature. But it took his relationship with the Warwick Rotary and the help of Holt and the Junior League of Hampton Roads to make his interest an institution.
In the 1950s, Wason moved from Newport News to Charlotte, N.C. to sell real estate. Besides business experience, he returned to Virginia with an idea. “I saw the Charlotte Nature Museum and was very impressed with it,” he said, “so I said to myself, ‘one day I would like to create one.’”
After moving back to Newport News, Wason was elected president of the Warwick Rotary Club and presented his plan for a nature museum to the Rotary and the local Junior League.
Wason wanted to build a museum dedicated to teaching guests about nature, offering educational classes to patrons and school groups. The Junior League members were excited to help start the Museum, so together the two organizations approached the city of Newport News for support.
Wason wanted to use property in Deer Park owned by the city, so he went to speak with “the legendary” Joe Biggins, the city manager, to get approval. “He dominated everything,” Holt said of Biggins. The meeting didn’t take place in an office, though. Instead, Wason went down to U.S. Restaurant on Washington Avenue to convince Biggins to approve the Museum.
When Wason first asked for the property in Deer Park where the Museum sits today, Biggins replied, “Son, you’ll never get that piece of property, that is the most valuable property in the city of Newport News.”
“I said ‘thank you very much,’ paid for the lunch and left,” Wason said of the meeting, laughing at the thought of that first encounter.
As new organizations in the city, the Warwick Rotary and the Junior League lacked a long-standing relationship with the leaders on city council.
“They thought we were two young organizations and didn’t quite have the credence,” Wason said.
After meeting with city council, Wason, Holt and others knew they needed to look elsewhere for support. “They said ‘come back when you have the money,’ and we went out on the sidewalk and thought ‘oh gosh!,’” Holt said.
Thankfully, with the help of from a local leader in the community—and leader in nature museums—the founders got the approval they needed.
Anna Hyatt Huntington, who was on a New York nature museum’s board, agreed to write a letter on behalf of the organizations. Since the land in Deer Park was donated by the Huntington family, Anna Huntington’s letter influenced city council. “Her family had given the city this property on condition that it be used for nothing except education,” Holt explained.
The tie to education helped cement Wason’s request for the land so the city agreed to rent the land to the future Museum. “We got the land at a dollar year, which I thought was a pretty good deal,” Wason said—a rate the Virginia Living Museum still pays each year.
Building the Museum
Once the property was settled, the Rotary and the Junior League formed a steering committee and began raising money to build the Museum.
Holt, who helped organize the Museum’s initial creation, remembers the Junior League’s strict rules for starting projects. “It was required to have a community committee,” she explained, “to put together a broad segment of the community to see if there was any chance that it would be supported.”
“You all just wanted to do it,” she jokingly said to Wason. “The girls had to think about whether it could be paid for.”
The Museum’s steering committee included leaders in the school systems from York, Hampton and Newport News. “If schools would send for field trips and pay for them,” she said, “we could succeed.”
The school leaders liked the idea of a nature museum, but it was missing one key element: a planetarium.
“It’s the new science, we have to learn it,” Holt described space during the 1960s. A planetarium was needed during a time when the United States was sending astronauts into space, scientists were studying moon rocks, and yet the Tidewater region was lacking a public planetarium.
So with the blueprints including a planetarium, members of the Warwick Rotary picked up hammers and nails to build the original Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium which opened in 1966.
“Then we had a building,” Holt said. “And what can I say? That was the first and it’s amazing what’s happened.”
Establishing a Following
During the early years, the Junior Nature Museum offered dioramas and taxidermied animals on display indoors and featured guided walking tours throughout Deer Park. Relying heavily on support from the community, the Museum benefited from volunteers creating and installing the exhibits.
In the beginning, the Museum leaders had to get creative to keep budgets low. Holt even remembers staff repairing the aquarium with parts from her stepmother’s old washing machine.
“We used what we could grab,” she explained.
The Junior Nature Museum featured collections of birds’ eggs and butterflies from Harry Wason’s father—collections the Virginia Living Museum still uses today.
Starting from scratch, the founders of the Museum pushed to get the community to visit. “We had an awful time for a decade trying to get Newport News and Hampton and York and others to know that it was here,” Wason said. “It was back in the woods then.”
Another problem the Museum faced was confusion about its intended audience. “It was looked upon as so much as a children’s museum,” Holt explained. “You really had to expand everybody’s thinking to include science and the environment—bigger issues that not just children but everybody needs.”
From 1966 to 2016 and Beyond
Despite these challenges, though, the founders of the Museum won over the community.
“We may have been the glue that started it, but this community has made it what you see today,” Wason said.
“It’s a community institution,” Holt agreed. “It’s taken all of these wonderful people who have been grabbed by the whole idea of it.”
In its first Annual Report, the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium stated that education and the volunteer corps were the main tenets supporting it.
“One of the reasons why this existed is because it’s such a wonderful education facility,” Holt said. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the volunteers.”
And volunteers still help Museum visitors today, to the delight of founders Wason and Holt.
“Over six million people have come through this Museum,” Wason said. “For Newport News that’s big time.”
And the Museum’s success could not be possible without the continued support of Wason and Holt.
Wason continues to give to the Museum, memorably in his donation of the “Bronze Boy” statue located at the entrance of the Museum. In 2001, Wason received the Golden Paw Award, commemorating his 35 years of service to the Museum and its mission.
Holt’s relationship with the Museum is also evident on the Museum’s grounds. The Holt Native Plant Teaching Garden and the Holt Native Plant Conservatory are named for her and her late husband Quincy. Opening in April 2013, the teaching garden represents horticulturally significant plants in Virginia. The conservatory, with more than 830 square-feet of space, houses plant propagation and garden education programs. Both garden centers were partially funded by the Holt family.
In the last 50 years, the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium has transformed into the Virginia Living Museum, growing to support more patrons, offer more exhibits, and touch the lives of more families and school children each year.
And for the next 50 years?
“I’d love to see us continue on the same track of growth, improving just like we are now,” Holt said.
Wason looks to grow beyond Deer Park in the future. “If we can pull this off, we can see a little satellite in York County, and Hampton especially, and Williamsburg,” he said.
But no matter how the Museum grows—satellites, new exhibits, new ideas—the mission of the Museum will connect back to the original Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium founded by Harry Wason and Mary Sherwood Holt.