The best museums and museum exhibits about science or technology give you the feeling that, hey, this is interesting, but maybe I could do something here, too. – Paul Allen
The Science Museum of Virginia fills the former Broad Street Railroad Station which was once the busiest in the South. This was of particular interest to the railfans in our family (myself included). Surprisingly, the SMV does very little to capitalize on this rich history and its many connections to science. There are a few artifacts in a hallway leading past the gift shop, and several old rail cars rest on tracks behind the museum. Access to the outdoor rail cars is easily missed but can be reached through the lower level. The recently restored (cosmetically) C&O Kanawha Class steam locomotive is off limits during museum renovation and construction.
My Turn First
If planning a visit, it is best to avoid this museum during school hours.
On the two consecutive days we visited the Science Museum of Virginia, the facility was overcrowded with students from area schools. This was certainly to be expected at a science museum, however, we were not prepared for such poor management of these students.
At one point, our boys were physically pushed from an exhibit by the rambunctious scholars shouting, “My turn first”. This occurred under the eyes of museum staff who did nothing. This same group of students then crowded us out of the Science Unplugged exhibit area. Another class made our experience in the Dome so miserable that my youngest son was in tears as we exited the program – less than 10 minutes after it began.
While the Museum certainly is not responsible for the behavior of individual visitors, they should take action when this behavior affects the safety and enjoyment of other guests. Numerous times I watched as school children ran screaming and shouting through the corridors past apathetic museum employees who did nothing.
We were unable to visit the museum’s Art Lab on our first day. School groups had created their own schedule for rotating students in and out of the room making it impossible for other guests to find a seat. Navigating the halls near the Art room was also a challenge as students swung their buzzing paper crafts through the air, unconcerned about potential impacts with others.
We did manage to find a seat in the lab on our second day, but found it difficult to enjoy the experience against the constant shouts, bumps, and general unruly behavior surrounding us. We left the museum for a couple of hours and returned at about 3:00. By then, the students had retreated to their busses and our boys were able to make books, create a buzzing toy, and attempt some origami.
The museum’s Science Unplugged display focused on simple machines and structures. When accessible, the area provides hands-on interactive exhibits that include bridge building activities and examples of pulleys, levers, and gears. This was the most interactive area in the museum.
Half a Museum
A significant portion of the museum is off limits during construction. To compensate, during our visits, the museum included a “free” admission to one of their daily Dome movies. Open exhibit areas included: The Body Human, Creatures, The Idea Factory and Alien Worlds and Androids.
Still Worth a Visit?
The Science Museum of Virgina, even in limited form, is exciting. Timing your visit to avoid school groups will help to avoid a repeat of our negative experiences. Parking is free, and the Childrens Museum of Richmond is located next-door.