Virginia Museum of Natural History to Build Waynesboro Campus

A dinosaur exhibit from the VMNH is currently mounted at the Waynesboro Public Library. Photo: Clover Carroll.

In the not-too-distant future, central Virginia residents and visitors will be able to learn about the geology, flora/fauna, and natural history of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley regions right across Afton Mountain in Waynesboro. Plans are well underway to build a satellite campus of The Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) at the corner of Main St. and Arch Ave. The 28,000 square foot facility will include 18,000 square feet of exhibit space, 2,000 square feet of children’s areas, a research laboratory, classrooms, an upper-level outdoor patio, and a gift shop. It will also include outdoor educational landscape features and have a direct connection the South River Preserve.

The mission of the VMNH, an arm of the Virginia Dept. of Education, is “to interpret Virginia’s natural heritage within a global context in ways that are relevant to all the citizens of the Commonwealth, . . . to preserve elements of natural history, to serve as a permanent repository for specimens, especially those of Virginia origin, and to make the natural history material and its data accessible to researchers and the public,” according to its website (

This conceptual drawing shows the exterior design of the proposed Waynesboro Campus of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy Glavé Holmes and Vernor Johnson Architects.

“At the Waynesboro campus, we’ll be telling the story of the biology, geology, archeology, zoology, paleontology, and fossil record of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and beyond,” explained Executive Director Joe Keiper. “We will have exhibits on what makes this area special, like the karst topography, limestone bedrock, and cave systems near Maple Flats and Big Levels. We want to encourage people to go out into nature and visit these unique environments themselves.” 

Located in Martinsville, the VMNH is a hidden gem, founded in the 1980s by a Virginia Tech professor as a scientific research institution. “The Virginia Museum of Natural History has over 10 million specimens in its collections, which include specimens in the areas of Archaeology, Bryozoans, Earth Science, Amphibians and Reptiles, Recent Invertebrates, Invertebrate Fossils, Birds, Mammals, Frozen Tissues, Plant Fossils, and Vertebrate Fossils. VMNH staff are directly responsible for the naming of 520 species new to science,” according to its website.  

Keiper had been looking for an opportunity for museum outreach in a more central, accessible location. When Leonard Poulin, then president of the Waynesboro Downtown Development Association, approached the museum about collaborating on a Blue Ridge Interpretive Center to stimulate economic development in Waynesboro, a mutually beneficial match was made. “Waynesboro is at the gateway of the Shenandoah National Park (SNP)—at milepost zero—as well as at the crossroads of I-81 and I-64,” said Keiper. “SNP gets 300,000 visitors per year. Not only will this new campus serve that tourist population, but we will also serve all Virginia communities within a 50-mile radius. Waynesboro is nicely nestled near Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Staunton, even Lexington. This represents an audience not currently served by any public scientific institution.” 

An exhibit space concept by Riggs Ward Designs for the proposed Waynesboro Campus of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Photo: Riggs Ward Designs.

“We will have permanent exhibits relevant to the area—for example, highlighting the impact of acid rain, and the South River and its connections to other watersheds,” Keiper continued. “One fascinating story is the life cycle of the American eel. In the reverse of how salmon spawn, these largely nocturnal eels swim from our freshwater streams down the Potomac River to the Atlantic Ocean to lay eggs in the Sargasso Sea, and then swim back. They’ve been coming back for decades, and are supported, for example, near Crabtree Falls. The history of Native American tribes living in the area will also be included. Native American artifacts have been found on Shenandoah Valley farmland.” There will also be rotating exhibits from the main museum. 

The project has been in the works for ten years. In 2021, thanks in part to the advocacy of Virginia Sen. Emmett Hanger and Del. John Avoli, the Virginia General Assembly approved the project as part of its six-year capital outlay plan, which funded design drawings. “We have done all the required surveys—geotechnical, archeological, and flooding,” explained Keiper, “to ensure the Main St. & Arch Ave. location is appropriate. We intend to finish the current design phase by the end of this year. In 2022, VMNH partnered with Glavé Holmes Architects of Richmond to design the museum building and Riggs Ward Designs for the interior spaces. 

This fall, the VMNH will request that the General Assembly move the project to its current capital construction pool in the state budget, which would provide funds for blueprints and allow actual site improvements and construction to begin. Hopes are for a ceremonial groundbreaking in 2024, at which point VMNH will launch a capital campaign. The cost estimate was $20 million 5 years ago, but by the time the estimate is finalized later this year, predictions for inflation and escalation will be added. The City of Waynesboro has committed $1 million (including the value of the 2.5-acre property), and the VMNH Foundation—funded by private donors—has promised $2 million. If the blueprints and budget are finalized in 2024, a Request for Proposal (RFP) could be issued in 2025. Construction itself will take at least two years.

“We are partnering with James Madison University (JMU), Virginia Energy (the state department that manages mineral resources), Waynesboro Downtown Development Association, and the Center for Coldwaters Preservation (CCR),” Keiper continued, “to design a state-of-the-art museum.” Leonard Poulin, a semi-retired information technology expert, is currently president of CCR and owner of AIProdEx LLC in downtown Waynesboro. “The Blue Ridge is a volcanic range, and the Shenandoah Valley is the result of five tectonic plate collisions,” he explained. “In one major find, spelunkers in Buchanan County found a fossilized prehistoric cat. The only dinosaur tracks in Virginia were found near Culpeper.” He is excited about the new museum. “It’s important that members of the community realize that if you have a vision and a lot of patience, you can make the community what you want it to be if you stick with it,” Poulin said.

The main museum in Martinsville currently features the Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas exhibit—in addition to regular exhibits on Biodiversity, Ice Age, the Hidden Life of Ants, and Uncovering Virginia that explore our natural history from 500 million years ago to the present day. Admission is $10. Two dinosaur skeletons from the museum are on display at the Waynesboro Public Library. Museum personnel hold information sessions about plans for the Waynesboro campus at the library every third Friday from 4 to 5 p.m. The next session will be Friday, August 18. You may donate to the Waynesboro campus project at 


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