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The Virginia Living Museum in Newport News is unlike any other museum I’ve been to. A visit there covers the huge natural variety in the Commonwealth of Virginia in just a few hours. It’s part aquarium, part zoo, part gardens, part history museum, part planetarium – and entirely fascinating.
“We like to say that you will meet more animals native to Virginia in a three hour visit than you will ever see living in Virginia in your lifetime,” says Judy Triska, the Living Museum’s marketing director. “We connect our visitors to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation of our world. We feature finned, furry and feathered animals native to Virginia in habitats that depict Virginia’s natural heritage from the mountains to the sea.”
The abundance of live animals and plants are what make it a “living museum." And the interactive exhibits with hands-on learning ensure visitors will have a really fun experience.
My family and I recently went to the Living Museum for the first time. When we arrived, it was full of kids and adults exploring, but spacious enough that it never felt too crowded.
The first spot to catch our eye was a touch tank of Virginia coastal critters. A museum educator held up a glistening horseshoe crab, and children tentatively touched its smooth brown back. She flipped the crab over to reveal a mass of swaying legs and pinchers – surprising and delighting the kids. In the open tank below, small fish darted and large sea snails inched along the bottom. It was feeding time for a trio of starfish and each had wrapped its sticky legs around a live clam in an attempt to pry them open.
Checking out the museum’s exhibits is like traveling through space and time across Virginia. There are the dark, stalactite-filled caves beneath the Blue Ridge mountains, the rushing currents and smallmouth bass at the fall line of the James River, and the barnacles and briny waters of the Chesapeake Bay. You can even go all the way back to the Jurassic in the excellent dinosaur discovery trail, which features fossil huts, dig pits, and 16 life-sized dinosaur replicas.
What really stood out to me were the Appalachian Cove and Cypress Swamp galleries, a pair of glass-covered, two-story atriums. Cool air and clear sunlight hit us when we walked into the mountain environment. Moss and leafy ferns line a babbling brook, with deep pools full of fat trout and colorful minnows.
A staffer tossed in fish food, and the trout broke the surface, splashing as they fought over the pellets. The waist-level waterway is designed so that you can look at it from the side, like an aquarium, or down from above just like in nature.
We walked across the hall and were transported more than 100 miles east to the swamps of Virginia’s coastal plain. Bald cypress trees dropped their needles into still water. Below lurked giant catfish and toothy longnose gar. A group of turtles clustered on the surface, straining their necks as they gazed at curious visitors. In a secure, glassed-off exhibit nearby, a brawny water moccasin flicked its tongue in and out.
Stepping outside the building leads you to what is, in effect, a huge open-air museum. Taking the boardwalk over the small lake is pleasant enough on a nice day, but the real treat is the native Virginia wildlife along the way. We saw curious raccoons, playful otters, browsing deer. Enclosures hold wolves, coyotes, and bobcats. And we walked through an amazing outdoor coastal aviary, full of herons, pelicans, ducks, and more. A sign explained that the birds were all rescued after injuries in the wild.
I could go on about what makes the Virginia Living Museum an amazing place to explore for people of all ages. There’s the native plant garden, a planetarium, and the “living green house” that’s a showcase for sustainable building. There’s even a hobbit house filled with small furniture that’s perfect for kids to play in. But the best way to find out is to just go and experience the breadth of Virginia’s natural wonders in just one afternoon.
The Virginia Living Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. All of the Museum’s public areas and classrooms are accessible to wheelchair users and to other visitors who cannot use stairs.
To learn more about the type of animals featured at the museum, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Field Guide.