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Arts & Extras: Helmets crash and snakes fly at science museum

Arts & Extras: Helmets crash and snakes fly at science museum


The Roanoke science museum has opened a bunch of new exhibitions, including four made in collaboration with Virginia Tech. Here's a few of them.

Microbes wriggling. Snakes flying. Helmets crashing together.

Were this a “Jeopardy!” quiz, a winning question would be, “What are new things to see at the Science Museum of Western Virginia?”

The science museum in Roanoke formalized a partnership with Virginia Tech in 2011. One of the aims was to make the museum a place to showcase the work of the university’s scientists. Four new exhibitions exemplify that goal.

Young visitors to the museum “are going to find that scientists are explorers,” museum director Rachel Hopkins said.

The science museum was closed to visitors for almost a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in March 2020, pivoting completely to operating as a learning lab, with classrooms held throughout the nonprofit’s spaces. As staff prepared to reopen June 1, they started work on replacing several old exhibitions with new ones, including four co-created with Tech. More are on the way.

The science museum resides on the fourth and fifth floors of Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke. By the fourth floor entrance, the first new Tech-related exhibition visitors will spy is “Microorganisms: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful,” which features brightly-lit photographs of creatures ordinarily too small to see, and microscopes with slides. A nice addition: the views through the microscopes get projected onto large screens.

“It’s really important for us to give kids exposure to the tools that are used in microbe research,” Hopkins said.

Founded by the National Science Foundation, the microorganisms display grew from research into the effects of various microscopic entities on songbirds, conducted by Tech biological sciences professor Dana Hawley.

The new Virginia Tech exhibitions supply information about and photos of the scientists who contributed.

Upstairs, the experiments get even more dramatic.

Sporting (pun intended) an on-the-nose title, “Virginia Tech Helmet Lab” ties into, naturally, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which conducts impact tests to determine the effectiveness of sports helmets.

“The kids all flock to this one, because they can identify with it,” Hopkins said. A machine allows visitors to crank two football helmets apart and choose the speed at which they will crash together. A display nearby explains the labs star rating system for helmet safety.

Before the helmet lab, there was no place for testing, said Phyllis Newbill, the associate director of education networks for Virginia Tech’s Center for Educational Networks and Impacts.

“Helmets were being made as however they were, and there wasn’t a way for parents or coaches or anybody to know what helmet was better than another. You could pay more but it may or may not actually be better,” said Newbill, who is the university liaison to the museum. Because of the tests and rating system, “helmet manufacturers have made changes and helmets are better now.”

The helmet exhibition also features a miniature football field made of artificial turf. The museum plans to add a feature that will show children how many miles per hour they are traveling when they dash across it.

Another new exhibition that might give some museum-goers an impulse to run is the “Snakes can fly?!” showcase, based on the work of biological engineering and mechanics professor Jake Socha.

“They actually get to a point in the tree and they will jump, and they will change their body in order to change how they’re moving,” Newbill said.

Also funded by the National Science Foundation, the display features explanatory video of (ulp!) snakes gliding through the air (just kidding, I actually dig snakes … though I might not love it if one suddenly landed on me.)

There’s also a miniature vertical wind tunnel that lets you see how different shapes can catch air current and rise. A curvy snake shape, as it turns out, floats quite ably.

A fourth new Tech exhibit, “Propolis,” is more of an art installation, with projections casting geometric shadows over a sculpture that resembles beehive honeycombs, suggesting the motion of bees in a hive. The piece is modeled on the creative technologies master’s thesis work of Renee Alarid, associate director of creative services at the Moss Arts Center. It’s meant to call to mind the roles of honeybees in the environment and economy.

Another exhibition in partnership with Tech is in progress in the former butterfly garden on the fifth floor. When complete it will feature a wide variety of native Virginia plants, from grass, crops and wildflowers to poison ivy (safely sealed away from curious hands) and parasites.

Other new exhibitions at the museum include a room that lets you see scorpions and millipedes fluorescing under a black light and a “Cabinet of Curiosities” full of objects and specimens from the museum’s collection.

“We just have the most amazing archives,” Hopkins said. “We wanted to give our guests the opportunity to see.”

Bearded Dragons and animals that fluoresce under ultraviolet light are just some of the new exhibits at the Science Museum of

2020-21 Kendig Awards announced

Hollins University and Roanoke College have announced the winners of the 2020-21 Perry F. Kendig Awards, which honor excellence in the Roanoke Valley arts. Tuesday’s ceremony honored nominees from both years, as the 2020 ceremony was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The individual artist winners were Todd Ristau, founder of the Hollins Playwright’s Lab and co-creator of No Shame Theatre, and Pat Wilhelms, the original founder of Roanoke Children’s Theatre, now Virginia Children’s Theatre. Wilhelms more recently founded the PB & J Theatre Co.

The arts and culture organization awards went to Olin Hall Galleries, Roanoke College’s visual arts venue, and Smith Mountain Arts Council, which for more than three decades has organized art shows, theater and concerts for the Smith Mountain Lake community.

The winners in the arts supporter category were Shelby and Jason Bingham, volunteers for and benefactors of Southwest Virginia Ballet and Mill Mountain Theatre, and the late Don and Barbara Smith, whose philanthropy and generosity assisted many Roanoke Valley arts and culture organizations. The Don and Barbara Smith Kids Square Museum in Center in the Square honors their memory.

Founded in 1985, the Kendig Awards honor the memory of the late Perry Kendig, a Roanoke College president and arts patron. For more information, visit

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Mike Allen is the editorial page editor for The Roanoke Times. His past beats as a Roanoke Times reporter included Botetourt County, Franklin County, courts and legal issues, and arts and culture.

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