Bears and bobcats: Central Va. gets natural history museum

Since the Charlottesville branch of the Virginia Natural History Museum closed its doors in 2004, the Smithsonian Institution's museum in Washington is closer for local natural history buffs than the state one in Martinsville. However, a new affiliate museum opening in Nellysford is going to put those exhibits of stuffed bears and bobcats a lot closer.

The Rockfish Valley Foundation– motto: "As big as all outdoors!"– has been a relentless booster for the natural resources of Nelson County, and has opened a park, hiking trails, and a scenic loop. Now it's poised to open the Natural History Center, in association with the Virginia Natural History Museum in Martinsville.


"This requires almost no money," says Peter Agelasto, president of the Foundation, who says he came up with the idea for the museum. His organization pays $1 rent for the former Spruce Gallery, a 1903 historic landmark building that was once a general store.

The Martinsville parent museum has exhibits that rotate. "They have to be downsized to come to us," says Agelasto. The museum sends a couple of curators and installers, who set up the exhibit. "We've got a guest cottage," says Agelasto, which further reduces costs.

The Rockfish Valley Foundation has no paid staff, no wealthy donors, and raised $25,000 to open the Natural History Center. "When you put all this together in tough times, you see what can happen," says Agelasto. "This whole project is a shot in the arm for natural history in Virginia."

Martinsville agrees. "This helps us get our name out," says Virginia Museum of Natural History spokesperson Ryan Barber, who admits that being located in Martinsville, where the museum opened 27 years ago, rather than in a state capitol like Richmond, can be a challenge. (Last year, UVA tore down the building that housed the Charlottesville outpost.)

Along with Radford University, the Nelson museum becomes the second operating affiliate. And the Virginia Museum of Natural History in turn is associated with the Smithsonian, which means plenty of resources for the smaller, low-budget museums.

The grand opening is June 16 with the exhibit, "Living off the Land." With the wineries and breweries along Route 151 and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Agelasto believes the new museum will be another reason for visitors to come enjoy Nelson's rural charms.

Agelasto is particularly interested in luring children away from video games and television and toward the magic of the natural world. He finds himself among a growing chorus of those who call the electronic device-centric lifestyle Nature Deficit Disorder. The Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center, he believes, can be part of the cure.

1 comment

Congratulations on the new museum. I am excited to visit with my crowd of boys. The rotating exhibits will make it worth returning to regularly. Great work!