At first glance, the Virginia Discovery Museum on the Downtown Mall doesn’t look that large. Pressed against the window to the left of the front door is a structure composed of a twisted tangle of tubes called Amazing Airways, an exhibit donated in honor of Peppy Linden, the museum’s first executive director. Young children pull levers and slide shafts back and forth, manipulating the direction of the air inside the tubes in order to learn basic physics principles.
Further steps into the museum reveal that the space is far from small, and what the nonprofit is accomplishing there is far from insignificant. This year marks the 25th since the museum moved to the mall, and since then, is has had a “symbiotic” relationship with the community, as co-interim executive director Janine Dozier puts it.
It is also the year the museum announced a front gallery renovation — new paint, new ceilings, new exhibits — with the help of area nonprofit Building Goodness. Work will begin in the spring.
Matthew “Fox” Ware, local project coordinator for the Building Goodness Foundation, said this is one of the biggest local projects the group has taken on, and he is excited to be a part of it.
As for what the upcoming renovation will entail, they are looking to incorporate more exhibits based on the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, particularly with an emphasis on energy and engineering, as well as a sensory studio for the special-needs community.
Current exhibits cover a wide range of subjects, including the Amazing Airways machine, building blocks for basic teamwork and problem-solving skills, a cabin set in the 1700s and an art room that houses the project of the day and encourages children to tap into their own creative ideas.
Annual events the museum organizes include Kid*Vention, an interactive family science fair with about 30 exhibitors, and Discovery Dash, a track race for all age groups.
The museum also teaches occupational life skills. Past the underwater-themed toddler room and down through the alphabet and number hallway — lined on each side with letters, numbers and a topical word that begins with each letter — lies “Little C’Ville.”
This back gallery area is a simulation of life in the city. The museum’s business partners, including Panera and the Paramount Theater, are replicated in child-size form, where the children are free to play and imagine themselves as adults, Dozier said.
This area encapsulates the idea of imaginative play that the museum is so interested in tapping into. Children act out experiences and experiment with decision-making, which helps to develop social and behavioral skills.
“We’ve been here for 25 years, and in those 25 years we have provided a critical resource to the city in providing a safe play space where kids can learn and play in a hands-on way,” Dozier said. “Imaginative play is a dying skill, and it is so important for developing creativity, problem-solving skills and the ability to work with other people. This is an environment where whether you are serving a meal in the cabin, or putting together a show at the Paramount, you have to work with other kids to make that happen.”
Studies at Arizona State University have shown that there is a close connection between a lack of pre-kindergarten educational experiences and college dropout rates. It has become clear to the museum’s board that in the Charlottesville area there is a growing number of children who are preschool age, but who are unable to attend due to lack of resources, museum officials said. What the museum offers is a safe, affordable space for children to explore academic concepts before kindergarten.
Community is considered a cornerstone of the nonprofit, said Beth Salek, co-interim executive director of the Virginia Discovery Museum. The organization also places a large emphasis on being accessible and affordable for everyone. It is easily reachable by public transportation, and annual family memberships costing $100 provide free admission not only to the Virginia Discovery Museum, but to more than 250 science centers across the country, and half-price admission to more than 300 children’s museums.
In addition, they have also waived admission to 3,000 visitors from 27 different area partnerships, including the Boys and Girls Clubs, Shelter for Help in Emergency and the Ronald McDonald House. Both Salek and Dozier said that ultimately the nonprofit wants to be able to help all children in the community as much as it can by making itself available as a resource for pre-kindergarten through elementary school learning.
The museum manages to pull all of this off, with an average of 51,000 visitors per year and about 1,000 members at any given time, on what it describes as a shoestring budget. Board Chairman Michael Phillips said 73 percent of funds raised go directly to programming.
“We work very hard to make sure our budget is as streamlined as possible and respect the fact that donors are giving up their hard-earned money to make this program work,” he said.
Kelley Buck is a correspondent for The Daily Progress.