Survival: Can museum avoid extinction?

Usually budget cuts are annoying flesh wounds that require limping along on less: no raises, no new hires, reduced hours. The UVA branch of the Virginia Museum of Natural History's budgetary slice was to the jugular, and unless someone performs major surgery quick; it will cease to exist at the end of the summer.

Headquartered in Martinsville, the Virginia Museum of Natural History isn't exactly one of the state's better-known resources. It opened in 1988 with branches at UVA and Virginia Tech. Until five years ago, the UVA arm was tucked in out-of-the-way (unless you're an undergrad!) Clark Hall until it moved to its current location on Emmet Street across from the Cavalier Inn.

Despite ever-reduced funding from the parent museum, the UVA branch was like the little engine that could, serving 17,000 last year with a staff of three part-timers and open only four days a week.

The death knell came in January, when Martinsville, which has lost 40 percent of its staff the past two years, announced the UVA branch would get no funding for its meager staff this year.

"Unless we can replace the monies for staffing, our doors will close," says local director Dela Alexander. UVA provides a rent-free space at 104 Emmet Street, but Alexander needs to raise $150,000 to see the museum through the next two years.

Unlike the Virginia Discovery Museum or other nonprofit attractions, the Natural History Museum does not have a fund-raising arm. It's not even listed in the front of the phone book under "attractions." That low profile, coupled with its dependence on state funding, puts it at a disadvantage in getting help.

"They're all people who are naturalists not professional fundraisers," says Nancy Burton-Prateley. "They're going to find it hard unless they find people to do it... I'm not sure if they'll be able to mobilize quickly enough to save it."

One of the things that attracted Burton-Prateley to Charlottesville was its small-town feel with big-city amenities like the Natural History Museum. When her son wanted to know what sound an otter makes, Thomas Collier at the museum could tell him.

She's thinking about home schooling her two children, ages five and seven, next year. Without the museum, she says, "I'm hysterical."

Malcolm Jarrell, instructional coordinator at Venable Elementary, plans a number of field trips each year to the museum. The school uses the museum's summer camp and its outreach program, where naturalists come in and talk to classes about bats or monarch butterflies or how animals adapt.

Closing the museum "does have an impact," says Jarrell. "It's a loss that we can't readily replace." For students, that means fewer hands-on exhibits, fewer people to give demonstrations in class, few nearby field trips.

Jarrell appreciates the fact that the museum's programs fit into the kids' Standard of Learning-influenced studies. He heard children talking about seeing a grizzly after a recent trip to the museum. "It was timely and fit in with what they were studying," he says.

"It's amazing what they've done with that small space," says Jessica Delaney at the Congregation Beth-Israel Preschool. From the outside, "it doesn't seem like a lot is going on. The minute you walk in you see this huge bear, and everywhere you look there's something to see."

Besides the aforementioned grizzly and black bears, the current Lewis and Clark exhibit features a bighorn sheep, American beaver, and pronghorn deer. A buffalo head comes from Georgetown Farm.

Alexander credits volunteers with lending or making displays, such as the Henri Rousseau-like panels made by UVA art students to illustrate the four habitats through which Lewis and Clark traveled. Or the deer skin apparel exhibit lent by another local.

"It's not an expensive museum to run," says Burton-Prateley.

In fact, it's an ingenious, low-budget affair that's free to the public and a favorite of parents looking for a place to hold a birthday party. In the Discovery Room, Alexander points out a prairie dog exhibit made from a freezer door.

After the summer mini-camp "Delve into Dinosaurs" session ends August 1, that's it for the little museum that could unless an angel or angels swoop in for the rescue.

Alexander is trying to remain optimistic. She's already planning a new exhibit, "Predator-Prey Relationships," to open in January. But for now, it looks like the museum will fall prey to brutal economic realities.