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This museum combines exhibits of the natural history of Virginia with living exhibits of animals, birds, and fish native to the state. The VLM is not a zoo, please note – all of the animals there were either injured, orphaned, or born in captivity.
I’ll discuss how to get there first, and then describe the exhibits and activities you’ll see there. To get to the nitty gritty immediately – this is an excellent museum, and is popular with kids, so families will enjoy it, as will anyone with any interest in natural history or the environment.
How Much Time Will You Need?
You should plan to spend about two hours at the museum, although you can certainly spend as much time there as you like. There are four Galleries featuring the natural history exhibits, a few large aquarium tanks, and a long outdoors, handicapped-accessible elevated boardwalk which enables you to walk through various habitats and view the animals, as well as various types of trees.
A new “Wild Side Café” opened in late September 2007, so it’s possible to get food, and then take it outside to the picnic areas in order to relax and eat.
How To Get There
The Museum is located at 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd. I suggest you get precise directions from your location to the museum via an Internet driving directions site.
J. Clyde Morris is an extremely busy stretch of road, with three lanes of traffic heading south, and three north, for much of its length, so you will do well to have a second pair of eyes looking out for the signs – most of which are relatively small, pale cream-colored, with pale green print alerting you when to turn.
The museum is located in a hollow, such that, if you’re driving north/east on J. Clyde, across the three lanes of traffic coming in the other direction, you won’t be able to see the buildings themselves. You’ll see a sign for the SPCA on your right – and the large sign for the Virginia Living Museum is on your left. There are a set of stop lights here so it will be easy for you to turn left, go across the three lanes onto the frontage drive, which you’ll follow along to the right.
If you’re coming south/west on J. Clyde, you will first pass the Riverside Hospital, then go up a bit of a hill. Looking to your right, down in the hollow, you’ll see the green roof of the museum, as well as a silver cupola on the right-hand side of the building that houses the observatory. You will see a small sign telling you that the Museum is the “next right,” and the first turning you come to on your right, which also happens to be the first set of stop lights you come to, is the one you take onto the frontage road. (The large sign, visible in the other direction, isn’t visible from this direction until you’re right on top of it.)
If you miss your turning, in either direction, don’t despair. U-turns are allowed here – so simply turn around at the next appropriate spot and go back.
When you first come to the frontage road, you’ll have a choice to go left or right. Go right. To the left is the road to Deer Park Elementary School. The first parking lot you come to is an “overflow” parking lot for school buses. Just keep on going to the parking lot in front of the museum.
What Time To Go – Seasons
This museum is visited frequently by schools during the school year. Usually not in September – but come October, the field trips begin. However, school buses must be back at their schools by 2 pm, so if you do not want to deal with a lot of kids running around, plan your visit for after that time. (Note the Outdoor Trail closes at 4.30 pm and the museum itself closes at 5 pm.) On the other hand, seeing the excitement of children as they touch the horseshoe crabs and other marine animals in the Touch Tank, or spot an animal on the Outdoor Trail, can heighten your own enjoyment of the museum.
As you walk towards the front entrance, you’ll see on your left a small sculpture of two bobcats chasing a rabbit. There’s also a sundial set into the walkway, with yourself as the gnomon.
Before you enter the museum, look to your right. (Or you may have noticed this already, depending on where you’ve parked.) To your far right, you’ll see a building that houses the planetarium (closed now, except for special occasions), and various classrooms. In front of that building is a new, permanent outdoor “exhibit” which opened in March 2007 – the Virginia Garden, featuring plants indigenous to Virginia from the time of the Powhatan (1607) onward. You can wander through this short trail, with explanatory signs in front of variously-planted plots, free of charge…
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Enter the museum, and you’re in a large foyer. To your right is the Wild Things Museum Store, full of books, T-shirts, plush toys, birding tools and so on. (You can go into the store without having to enter the museum, and it’s a fun place to browse around, so if you have the time…) Also to your right is the Wild Side Cafe.
The Admissions Desk is straight ahead. At the time of this writing, tickets for adults are $13 (with the discount for seniors) and $10 for children – under the age of 12! Consider getting a membership if you live anywhere in the area.
To your immediate left is the room in which the Changing Exhibits are held. You can go there first, or wait until you’re done with the rest of the museum. These exhibits usually run for about 4 months each.
Events and Volunteers
Be sure to pick up a flyer at the Admission Desk which lets you know what events are happening that day – and be sure to ask the clerk at the Desk if anything special is scheduled. Various feelings of the animals take place on a regular basis, and those in the Touch Tank and Aviary are fed every day at specific times.
The observatory is open to observe the sun (with proper protection of course) and the moon during the day, and on selected occasions at night. However, this is all dependent on volunteers being available to staff the observatory – so ask at the desk or call beforehand to find out if the observatory is open.
There are seasonal events as well – running only a couple of days each. For example at the time of this writing, flyers for the “Night of the Living Museum,” a non-scary Halloween event, are set out on the counters. There are plenty of school activities and activities for kids going on all the time, and astronomy programs for adults and kids, so check out their website (given at the bottom of this article) to see what’s happening.
The Virginia Living Museum consists of two floors, with two galleries on each floor. Their galleries provide information on the Piedmont and Mountains, the Coastal Plain, the Virginia Underground, and the World of Darkness (i.e. nocturnal animals).
You enter the museum on the Upper Level. The entrance to the Outdoor Trail and Exhibits is on the Lower Level, and if you want to do that first, either take the spiral staircase or elevator, down to that level.
Piedmont and Mountains Gallery
On your left is the Piedmont and Mountains Gallery. There’s a “Hands-on Activities” niche there, usually unoccupied when school tours aren’t in evidence, but you can still poke around them.
The Piedmont is “a plateau between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains, including parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.” Walk through this gallery into the Appalachian Mountain Cove, an “outdoors” area reproducing the Appalachian habitat. You are actually looking down over the Cove, which extends upwards from the Lower Level.
Coastal Plain Gallery
Before you go into the Coastal Plain Gallery, you’ll want to visit the Touch Tank, which is always manned by a volunteer to encourage visitors to touch the horseshoe crabs and other marine crustaceans on offer in the tank. There’s also a docent inside the gallery, to talk about the Bay aquarium through which you walk on the way to the rest of the exhibits. And then, out into the “outdoor” exhibit of the Cypress Swamp, where you can see alligators, turtles, ducks and so on. Again, you are looking down over the Cove, which extends upwards from the Lower Level.
Descend to the Lower Level via the spiral staircase in the center of the building, or take the elevator. The first thing you’ll see is a dinosaur sculpture. Plenty of dinosaur tracks have been found in Virginia, but no dinosaur bones.
Virginia’s Underground Gallery
To your left is the Underground Gallery. Again, there’s a hands-on activity section, which is only manned during field trips, but you can still poke around it.
The Underground Gallery itself consists of a mock-up of a limestone cave and an underground mine.
Virginia’s World of Darkness Gallery
Poke around the hands-on section, then journey int the World of Darkness Gallery, to see animals that come out at night, such as owls, flying squirrels, and so on.
Outdoor Trail and Exhibits
When you exit to the Outdoor Trail, you will see a butterfly garden in between the doors. On your right a couple of beavers, busy beavering away. There’s also a large tank with a couple of otters. The waters over which you walk on the boardwalk are a tributary of Deer Park Lake, a tributary of the James River.
You’ll pass through the 5,500-squarefoot Coastal Plain Aviary – filled with coastal birds such as pelicans, herons, egrets and ducks. Then you walk on the boardwalk through the various habitats of animals – red wolf, bald eagle, vulture, bobcat, deer, wild turkey, skunk and opossum, coyote and fox. (And again, the animals here cannot survive in the wild.)
Know Before You Go
The goal of any museum is to tell you what you need to know when you’re in the museum. The Virginia Living Museum has excellent explanatory placards everywhere. But you will get so much more pleasure out of the experience if you are actually familiar with the topics before you enter the museum. So check out a few books on the geography and physical features of the state of Virginia – you’ll be glad you did!
Opening and Closing
The VLM is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except during the Winter season (Labor Day to Memorial Day), when the Sunday hours are noon to 5 pm. The Museum is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Better Safe Than Sorry
The phone number for the museum is 757-595-1900. I’m going to suggest that you call the Museum before you set out, to ensure that it is open. This may seem like a waste of time, but I actually had the experience this summer of dropping in to visit the museum only to discover it was closed because of a power outage caused by a storm the night before! Now that’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, nevertheless, it doesn’t take long to make the call and it will save any disappointment later.
Exhibits change on a regular basis, so check the website at http://www.thevlm.org to see what’s new.
Another website to visit is the Hampton Roads Bird Club at http://www.hamptonroadsbirdclub.org.
If you exit out of the Museum and turn left, you’ll be heading in the direction of the Mariners’ Museum. Just keep going straight until you get to it. If you turn right, the first turning on your right will be at the junction of the Deer Park Elementary School. Keep going, and you’ll come to the parking lot for Deer Park, where you can walk through several nature trails.