Chartered in January 1970 as the first science museum in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Science Museum was created by a small group of teachers and community volunteers in response to the need for an informal education facility to help students learn about science. The Museum was originally housed in 400 square feet of the basement of Cherry Hill, a multi-cultural building in the residential neighborhood of South Roanoke. A number of school principals provided paid release time for teachers to develop curriculum materials that incorporated Science Museum exhibits and programs into the schools’ classroom instruction.
In 1976, the Science Museum relocated to the abandoned Tinker Creek School, a 3,000 square foot World War I era building. The Science Museum continued to grow with increased exhibits, programs, and attendance. Funding was secured from the Virginia Department of Education, and the Museum’s first full-time director was hired.
In the late 1970’s the City of Roanoke began reviving its downtown market district—which had previously succumbed to urban blight—by renovating a large five-story warehouse as a multi-cultural center. In 1983, that facility, Center in the Square, was opened to the public. It housed the Art Museum of Western Virginia, Mill Mountain Theater, Roanoke Valley History Museum, the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge and the renamed Science Museum of Western Virginia. To make the move to the center, the Science Museum had successfully raised $3 million to construct a planetarium and new galleries.
In one step, the Museum was transformed from a small, home-grown collecting museum to a larger institution with a new planetarium and professionally designed interactive exhibits:
- Geology and the Fossil Record
- Human Health
- Plant and Animal Communities
- Ecology of the Chesapeake Bay
The Science Museum was enormously popular with the public and enjoyed strong attendance through the late 1980s. However, by 1990 the Museum’s facilities were in need of renovation, exhibits needed to be updated, and attendance had fallen off. It was time to re-envision the future.
In 1992, the SMWV board agreed to begin planning the Museum’s renaissance. A new director was hired in 1993 and a $1.5 million master plan for new exhibits was completed. The state of Virginia approved $625,000 in funding in 1994 and over the next year additional funds were raised for a total of $900,000. This capital funding allowed the museum to open:
- The Science Arcade (exploring light, color, and sound) (1995)
- Body Tech (1996)
- Hands-on laboratory and enhancements to Hopkins Planetarium (1997)
- A new Weather Gallery (1998)
- A “SuperNet” Gallery (featuring high-speed internet connections) (1999)
Once again the Museum experienced increases in attendance and revenue by offering visitors the opportunity to explore, discover and interact through stimulating exhibits and galleries.
Currently, the home of SMWV, Center in the Square, is undergoing an extensive $27 million facility renovation. As the Science Museum must integrate with Center’s new design, it is an opportune time for us to develop an innovative model for Informal Science Education by reinventing not only exhibit galleries, but also the entire Museum and its connecting spaces, classrooms, and programs in order to transform the way visitors engage in learning science.