MARLBORO — Officials at the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum have big plans that they believe will be a tremendous boon to the entire region.
"Imagine something the size of Montshire," said Assistant Director Michael Clough, referring to the large science museum in Norwich. "And now wrap a natural history museum around it," he added.
They want to call it the Vermont Museum of Natural History, which founder and Director Ed Metcalfe said is the actual name under which the museum is incorporated. But with a facility measuring only 600 square feet, that name seemed a little pretentious so they added the word "Southern" in front.
"We want to use the name it was founded under and make a facility worthy of that name, somewhere here in southern Vermont," Metcalfe said during an informational meeting held Friday, April 1, at Twin Valley Elementary School.
"We've been talking about it internally for about two years," Clough said, adding, "Actually, Ed's been talking about it since the '90s."
The museum was established in 1996 around the historic Luman Ranger Nelson Natural History Collection, one of the largest collections of native birds and mammals in the Northeast, with more than 250 species represented. Over the years the museum has added live animal exhibits and taken its educational programs on the road to schools and community groups all over the region. Last year, more than 18,000 people participated in the museum's programs.
Clough said the museum has grown so much that its current location presents some significant challenges: The grade of the land on top of Hogback Mountain and the adjacent gift shop make the museum seem smaller and give it less visibility; there's no classroom or auditorium space; no opportunity for physical expansion; and inadequate parking. Clough said all of those issues can be addressed by relocating.
Both Metcalfe and Clough said their first choice is to remain in the Deerfield Valley area – which both of them call home. Another information meeting to gauge community support will be held this Friday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Dover Elementary School.
Clough said a new, larger facility would allow the museum expand its collection to include more of Vermont's natural history, from dinosaurs to the ice age, to Native Americans and man-made projects of the past (ie the Glory Hole spillway in Wilmington). There will be updated and expanded live animal exhibits with a giant lake aquarium, foxes and otters (all animals that can't be released into the wild and need a refuge to live out their lives safely).
A multi-use auditorium/classroom with naturalistic design could be created for indoor camping and other "overnight" programs at the museum. Metcalfe envisions stars on the ceiling, sound effects, tents set up on the floor, lots of science and lots of fun. There also would be more hands-on exhibits with increased use of technology, such as a water erosion table and a sandbox with an interactive topographic map.
All of that is just on the inside. Outdoors would be a nature-themed play area where, for example, children could climb inside a "bear den" to find a big stuffed toy bear inside. Like Montshire, there would also be an outdoor water play area, but instead of being made with cement, Clough envisions a more natural setting with frogs hopping in and out.
Clough and Metcalfe ticked off a list of the many benefits an expanded museum would offer the region: A connecting hub for local outdoor recreation and science education; a year-round, all-weather resource for locals and tourists (even during the slow time of the year); a community resource to support local school science curriculum and as a venue for private and community events. In terms of economic development, the museum would provide at least 30 quality jobs, plus all of the work required to build the facility.
"Our first choice is to keep everything local and help our local economy," Clough said.
Of course, a facility like this doesn't come cheap. Metcalfe anticipates needing to raise at least $4 million to "do it right."
At some point, he said, they'll need to add a professional fundraiser to their staff. In the meantime, Metcalfe and Clough say they are looking at three potential properties in the Deerfield Valley area and hope to finalize a location in a month or so. Also, committees of local support have been formed to help with picking a site, fundraising and advisory.
"We need people on committees and help with fundraising," said Clough. "Lots of hands can make pretty light work."
For more information about the museum, visit www.vermontmuseum.org.