Virginia Museum of Natural History permanent exhibits

Topic: Life Sciences

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Ryan Barber

Published on March 17, 2009, Modified on June 17, 2010

  • Description and goals

    Exhibits Description:
    There are two major permanent exhibition galleries at the Virginia Museum of Natural History: “Uncovering Virginia”, and the “Lee & George W. Lester, II How Nature Works gallery”. These newly-opened galleries total 5,336 square feet, and are the subject of this entry.

    The “Uncovering Virginia” gallery features recreations of six VMNH research sites in Virginia representing periods from 300 million years ago to 300 years ago. Exhibitions include “Grundy” (300 million years ago), “Solite Quarry” (225 million years ago), “Carmel Church” (14 million years ago), “Chippokes” (3 to 9 million years ago), “Saltville” (14,000 years ago), and “Graham-White” (300 to 500 years ago).

    The “Lee & George W. Lester, II How Nature Works” gallery includes two exhibitions that demonstrate how energy from within the Earth’s crust and energy from the sun have together shaped the Earth as we know it today. The “How Nature Works: Rocks” exhibition includes dramatic landscape models that reveal how the world is shaped by geological forces that are themselves powered by the enormous energy deep within the planet. A striking display of plants and animals fill the “How Nature Works: Life” exhibition, conveying that almost all living things on Earth depend, directly or indirectly, on the sun as their energy source.

    The new permanent exhibits at the Virginia Museum of Natural History communicate two types of content. One kind of information reveals and discusses the fundamental processes that scientists understand to have formed the natural world — plate tectonics, evolution and extinction, energy and adaptation. The other category reflects the natural history of Virginia and the work of the state natural history museum. These two strands are interwoven in different proportions in different sections of the permanent exhibitions.

    Two sections (titled “How Nature Works: Life” and “How Nature Works: Rocks”) express the fundamental idea that energy, in different forms, is the driving force of biology and geology. This concept — that beneath the apparently chaotic surface of what we see there are understandable natural processes creating change — is one of the most important ideas for any natural history museum to convey to its audiences.

    “How Nature Works: Life” draws upon the expertise of the life science curators at VMNH to present the idea of energy flow through ecosystems, using taxidermied specimens from the Museum’s collections (supplemented by graphics and models) to show the feeding relationships among organisms. Thus the specimens are organized by trophic (feeding) level: green plants, herbivores, carnivores and decomposers. Since the many of the specimens (drawn mostly from the Museum’s existing collections) are posed in ways that do not reflect the activity of feeding, each is supplemented by a simple graphic, ‘reposing’ it into the relevant attitude. As far as possible, Virginia examples are used, and identified with a visual cue on the label. In “How Nature Works: Rocks”, the story is also about energy — the energy of heat within the earth that drives the movement of tectonic plates over the surface of the planet, creating the geological framework of our world. Here specimens are less central, with the major ideas being communicated through large models showing various aspects of the movement of continents and resulting phenomena such as vulcanism and rifting. Again ‘Virginia’s Version’ of the story is told, within the context of larger global processes.

    Despite the relatively small size of the institution, VMNH staff undertake important scientific research, both in Virginia and around the world. Thus evoking the process of scientific discovery is the guiding strategy in the exhibit section titled Uncovering Virginia. Each of the six recreations of an excavation site or museum workspace represents the work of a particular VMNH curator, integrating real specimens with convincing environments, scrupulously created under the direction of the researcher. Interactives allow visitors to try and solve the same kinds of problems that curators encounter in their research. These areas are specimen-rich, reinforcing the underlying idea that most VMNH research is based on the discovery and interpretation of objects (specimens or artifacts), which find their ultimate home in the Museum for future researchers to consult. By integrating all these elements, “Uncovering Virginia” brings real science to visitors in a way never before seen in a state museum of natural history.

  • Development process and challenges

    Design and Production:
    The design and production of the new galleries was a collaboration spanning three years from master planning to opening. Throughout this time, the VMNH Curatorial team was extensively involved in the process, working with the designers of Reich + Petch Design International. The work progressed through a series of monthly design workshops and charettes in Martinsville. These workshops included not only the presentation, discussion and selection of design options, but also the development of a concurrent Communications Plan, documenting the themes, storyline, related content and supporting media.

    This approach was successful in gaining both consensus among the team members, and ‘buy-in’ from the museum team and management. At key points, all the VMNH staff, outside stakeholders and the general public was invited to comment on the design. Because of the importance of tying the design to the State Standards of Learning, formative evaluation and testing of prototypes took place in the museum. This evaluation, conducted by Randi Korn and Associates, involved talking to a number of focus groups, including teachers and casual visitors.

    The design of the building suggested that visitors would circulate around the permanent galleries in either direction, which precluded a chronological arrangement in favor of a more thematic approach. The selected spatial organization supports the exhibition’s conceptual organization, and traffic patterns are obvious to visitors. Orientation at the start and throughout the exhibition provides visitors with a conceptual, physical, and affective overview of the exhibition. Wayfinding by means of a graphic hierarchy assists visitors in their understanding of where they are and where they may want to go next. The designers were faced with the challenge of designing the exhibits while the building was being built. In certain areas fast decisions had to be made, so that exhibit content could be accommodated by the building design. For instance, suspending the large fossil skeleton of an ancient whale called Eobalaneoptera in the Great Hall required the prior placement of a hanging infrastructure in the roof.

    The exhibit designers worked hard to make use of the opportunities offered by the building. Open ceilings provided some flexibility for exhibit lighting and systems, Ceiling heights ranging from 12 feet in Uncovering Virginia to 30 feet in How Nature Works Life were used to great advantage to allow the exhibits to tell very different stories in these two areas. Cases for changing exhibits in the Great Hall surround the freestanding columns, creating minimal physical intrusion into this orientation and events space.

    The simplicity of the exhibitry, clean-lined millwork and the selected color range supports the nature of the stories being communicated, and the design utilizes a wide range of sustainable materials in keeping with the environmental themes.. For each element of the exhibition (furnishings, audio-visuals, sound, printed materials, graphics), the materials used and the quality of production are appropriate to the design concepts, audience expectations and learning levels, and the budget of the exhibition.

    The production of the exhibits was by Virginia based fabricator D+P. They fabricated, integrated, and installed all of the elements including the audio-visual hardware. At regular review meetings (both at D&P’s fabrication plant and on site) client, designer and fabricator worked together to fine tune the exhibits and integrate the models, lighting and media, contributing to the quality and success of the project. A similar approach was followed with Cortina Productions, developer of the audiovisual software that takes the visitor into past worlds through carefully and accurately crafted animations.

    Audience Awareness:
    The work of the design team was informed by VMNH’s twenty-year history of serving the people of Martinsville, Henry County and the larger community of southern Virginia. The demographics, education levels, and museum expectations of these audiences were integrated into the planning process by VMNH staff. Potential tourist audiences (not a significant factor in the old museum) were also considered, using data from State sources, and the collective expertise of an experienced design team.

    This information suggested the exhibits should be directed towards a family audience (defined as groups comprising both adults and children), with relatively little formal background in science, but an interest in both learning about natural history and enjoying a social experience. Secondary audiences, based on the needs and demographics of the local community, include school groups, and adults without children, particularly retirees. Among the goals identified for the exhibits, a number were audience-related: ‘making the museum a permanent resource for the community’; ‘changing the perception that VMNH is just for kids’; as well as offering museum visitors an exceptional experience and becoming a tourist destination in Southside Virginia.

    The continuing involvement of an interpretive planner with a mandate to consider and represent the interests of the visitor throughout the planning, ensured that future visitors were implicit participants in the process. For instance, in order to respond to the varied levels of interest and often limited time budgets of a family audience, the exhibits were ‘leveled’, with both experiences and information structured to allow visitors to quickly absorb the basic idea from each major element, while digging deeper where time and interest permitted. To gain further insight into the interests and opinions of potential exhibit audiences, Randi Korn and Associates, Inc. were contracted by VMNH to conduct research using focus group discussions. This study, which took place during the development process, provided recommendations for areas of the exhibit where the team felt their collective expertise was insufficient to accurately understand visitor expectations and reactions. In addition several community information sessions were held, at which the design team presented the current plans, and solicited feedback from all who chose to attend the session.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    The planning of the VMNH permanent exhibits began with the team clearly identifying the messages to be communicated. These were documented and organized in a Communications Plan, which then guided the team in the process of creating interesting experiences specifically to convey these messages to visitors through objects, graphics and interactives. Since the exhibition consists of two separate sections (Uncovering Virginia, and How Nature Works with sub-sections for Life and Rocks), the approaches to communication in each area appropriately reflect their differences in content.

    From the overall feel of the space, through the nature of the experiences, to the tone and graphic style of the text, Uncovering Virginia attempts to put the visitor in the role of the scientist. Visitors see what scientists see, do what they do, and (hopefully) understand what they understand. Interactives offer challenges that are both clearly related to real scientific work, and interesting to visitors young and old. The idea that scientists don’t have all the answers is conveyed in several places, where the visitor learns about ongoing research challenges, or encounters (and chooses between) contesting hypotheses to explain questions that are currently unresolved. When the presentations go beyond the specifics of the material on display (notably in A/V recreations of past environments), these are clearly framed as the current scientific understanding, and presented in a style that evokes the past rather than attempting to describe it in (inappropriate) detail.

    On the other hand, the two How Nature Works subsections are syntheses of big ideas, expressed as directly as possible, and given a Virginia slant. Here interaction is used as a tool to engage visitors, rather than as in Uncovering Virginia to indicate how scientists work. Therefore the HNW interactives tend to be less challenging, and more focused on activities accessible even to younger children. Both interpretation and design create a higher energy level within the spaces, with fewer but bigger elements, and a brighter and more dynamic lighting regime. The graphic style is looser, with fewer levels of information and a more colloquial and humorous style of text. Sidebar information offers quirky, even inconsequential facts related to the ideas and specimens on display.

    Despite the differing messages and feel of the major exhibit sections, a basic level of coherence is achieved through a combination of consistent graphic criteria (cues to the hierarchy of information, formats for object labels, and so on), effective and consistent wayfinding, and specific references embedded in the text to the other sections of the exhibition. The intent is to allow each section to express a unique and appropriate character though its design, while still making the visitor feel that all the exhibit sections belong within the same institution.

    Why is this an excellent example of museum communication? Because interpretation and design are integrated in order to effectively convey important ideas. Visitors are offered a satisfying combination of variety and coherence in both their intellectual and physical experiences. And this is all presented in ways that encourage engagement, respond to the variety of visitor characteristics, and thus create a memorable visitor experience.

  • Exhibition Opened: March 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Martinsville, VA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): Commonwealth of Virginia/Private Funding Sources

  • Website(s):

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