The Institute of Museum and Library Services announced Thursday that the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) is among 30 finalists for the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. In total, 15 museums and 15 libraries are finalists for this year’s award.
The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries that demonstrate significant impact in their communities. For more than 25 years, the award has honored institutions that demonstrate excellence in service to their communities.
“It’s an exceptional honor for the Virginia Museum of Natural History to be recognized as a finalist for the prestigious 2021 IMLS National Medal for Museum and Library Service,” said Dr. Thomas Benzing, chairman of the VMNH Board of Trustees. “Museum leadership and staff strive every day to bring positive impacts to the citizens of the Commonwealth and our local community through STEM-based educational programs, collections-based scientific research, award-winning exhibits, and innovative science festivals. Being recognized for these efforts in such a distinguished manner is truly an honor.”
The Virginia Museum of Natural History is the only collections-based science institution for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the only such institution between Raleigh, N.C. and Washington, D.C. Although a relatively new institution established in 1984, VMNH has amassed millions of specimens and artifacts representing Virginia’s natural and cultural heritage. Even during a world-wide pandemic, VMNH staff leveraged the museum’s resources to serve audiences in unique ways with online tools, safe public hours, and special in-person educational events that kept participants and staff free of exposure.
“The revival and reinstitution of the National Medals by IMLS is another signal of recovery and renewal in the nation’s very challenging—but very hopeful—times,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper. “We are celebrating not only the ongoing excellence of the best of our museums and libraries, but their extraordinary efforts through the pandemic, the recession, the racial justice protests, and national divisions to serve, heal, and bring together our communities. Congratulations to all 30 finalists.”
From the onset of the pandemic, the museum quickly adapted new methods of connecting with audiences who were no longer able to visit the museum to tour its exhibits or participate in traditional educational programming.
To counter the limitations imposed by the pandemic, museum staff developed new programming, such as the original social media series “Tales of Ancient Life”, “#BenInNature” and “Museum Minute”, while adapting traditional museum programs, such as its Homeschool Science and Engineering Academy, to virtual offerings. Additionally, the museum placed an even greater emphasis on its Distance Learning programming, while also offering several drive-thru science events to help fill the void of being unable to host its traditional lineup of science festivals, which routinely attract thousands of visitors.
Tales of Ancient Life
Our planet has an incredible story to tell and VMNH Assistant Curator of Paleontology Dr. Adam Pritchard helps share it through his original social media video series, “Tales of Ancient Life”. In this series, which can be found on Facebook and YouTube, Dr. Pritchard uses spectacular fossils and other scientific specimens from the museum’s paleontology collections to highlight the wonders of earth’s ancient past in ways that are relevant to a wide variety of ages.
Residing on the museum’s official Facebook page, #BenInNature follows the museum’s Administrator of Science Ben Williams as he ventures outdoors to record snapshots of the unique sights that can be found in the natural world. From the colorful Northern red salamander (Psuedotriton ruber ruber) to the intimidating (yet, largely harmless) Wolf spider, Williams provides intriguing facts and unique humor to highlight the wide diversity of flora and fauna found within the Commonwealth.
The Virginia Museum of Natural History has a spectacular assortment of displays within its exhibit galleries. Some displays are unforgettable, while others don’t always get the attention they deserve. Through the original series “Museum Minute”, museum educators highlight various displays within the museum’s exhibit galleries, while providing intriguing and little known facts about the specimens on exhibit.
Homeschool Science and Engineering Academy
Homeschool Science and Engineering Academy is a series of bi-monthly programs from September to May designed to supplement students’ learning and knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) based topics. Additionally, the museum works with homeschool groups individually to design and provide programming relevant to students’ needs. Since the pandemic began, the Academy transitioned into a virtual-only offering.
Distance Learning Programming
VMNH distance learning programs bring students to the museum without ever having to leave their seats. Through the use of two-way video, classes join museum educators to explore Virginia’s natural heritage and uncover its rich biological and geological history. Together, with the use of videoconferencing and interactive activities, museum educators spark imagination, enhance curricula, and support Virginia and national educational standards.
Due to ongoing health precautions and crowd-size limitations, the museum was unable to host its lineup of science festivals in 2020, including the highly popular Reptile Festival and Dinosaur Festival. To help fill the void, the museum offered separate drive-thru events in which visitors could drive their vehicles through the museum’s parking lot to witness a variety of displays, while learning about the specimens on display from museum researchers and education staff. In addition to being held at the museum, the dinosaur-themed drive-thru event was also held in Waynesboro, where a branch campus of the museum is planned to be built in the coming years.
“To be nominated by Senator Mark Warner was an honor unto itself, but to be a finalist for the 2021 IMLS National Medal for Museum and Library Service is exceptional.” said Dr. Joe Keiper, executive director of VMNH. “It shows that the hard work of the board members and staff have shaped VMNH into an institution that is meeting its mission of service to the natural sciences and STEM education, and for that we cannot be more proud.”
To celebrate this honor, IMLS is encouraging the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s community members to share stories, memories, pictures, and videos on social media using the #ShareYourStory and #IMLSmedals hashtags, and engage with IMLS on Facebook and Twitter. For more information, please visit the IMLS website.
National Medal winners will be announced in late spring. Representatives from winning institutions will be honored for their extraordinary contributions during a virtual National Medal Ceremony this summer.