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The Virginia Living Museum in Newport News

7 Mins read

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, then describe the exhibits and activities you’ll see there. To get to the nitty gritty immediately – this is an excellent museum that is popular with kids, so families will enjoy it, as will anyone interested in natural history or the environment.

How Much Time Will You Need?

It would help if you planned 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 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 and multiple 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 to relax and eat.

Museum

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, so you won’t be able to see the buildings themselves if you’re driving north/east on J. Clyde across the three lanes of traffic coming in the other direction. 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 and cross 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 dome 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 turn around at the next appropriate spot and return.

Parking Lot

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 visit 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 many kids running around, plan your visit for after that time. (Note the Outdoor Trail closes at 4.30 pm, and the museum closes at 5 pm.) On the other hand, seeing children’s excitement 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 enjoyment of the museum.

Entrance

As you walk towards the front entrance, you’ll see a small sculpture of two bobcats chasing a rabbit on your left. A sundial’s also set into the walkway, with yourself as the gnomon.

–Virginia Garden

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, etc. (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, adult tickets are $13 (with a discount for seniors) and $10 for children under 12! Consider getting a membership if you live anywhere in the area. To your immediate left is the room where 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 four 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 ask the clerk at the Desk if anything special is scheduled. Various feelings of the animals occur regularly, and those in the Touch Tank and Aviary are fed daily at specific times. The observatory is open to observe the sun (with proper protection) and the moon during the day and on selected occasions at night. However, this depends 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 also seasonal events – running only a couple of days each. For example, at 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 Galleries

The Virginia Living Museum has 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 Outdoor Trail and Exhibits entrance is on the Lower Level, and if you want to do that first, either take the spiral staircase or elevator down to that level.

Upper 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. 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 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 a volunteer always mans to encourage visitors to touch the horseshoe crabs and other marine crustaceans in the tank. There’s also a docent inside the gallery to talk about the Bay Aquarium, through which you walk to the rest of the exhibits. And then, out into the “outdoor” show of the Cypress Swamp, where you can see alligators, turtles, ducks, etc. 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 only operates during field trips, but you can still poke around it. The Underground Gallery 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 into the World of Darkness Gallery to see animals that come out at night, such as owls, flying squirrels, etc.

Outdoor Trail and Exhibits

When you exit the Outdoor Trail, you will see a butterfly garden 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 branch of the James River. You’ll pass through the 5,500-square-foot 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, opossum, coyote, and fox. (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 from the experience if you are familiar with the topics before entering the museum. So check out a few books on Virginia’s geography and physical features – 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 suggest you call the Museum before you set out to ensure it is open. This may seem like a waste of time, but I had the experience this summer of visiting 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, making the call doesn’t take long and will save any disappointment later.

Website

Exhibits change regularly, 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.

Other Attractions

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 turn 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.

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