Monday, March 15, 2010

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Renfro Valley, Kentucky

Located in historic and popular Renfro Valley, just off I-75 in Kentucky, The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum showcases the many stellar musicians produced by the Bluegrass State. The Museum features individual displays on the Hall of Fame members, from Grandpa Jones to Dwight Yokum. Displays include costumes, instruments, sheet music, awards, and other memorabilia related to each musician. Additional displays allow visitors to compose music and learn about instruments. There are also displays representing musical settings from the front porch to the recording studio. Visitors walks through a timeline of Kentucky’s musical history, accompanied by music from each era. A short introductory film provides an overview of Kentucky’s musical past, and there is also an area, crafted to resemble a mountain glen, where visiting musicians can perform for guests. The Museum Junkies visited this site with an additional reviewer, Elizabeth’s mother, Daphne.
From a historian’s point of view: Michael thought the displays were laid out well, and the museum had a great sound overall. He would have liked a little more detail on some of the exhibits. The admission price seemed a little steep for the size of the museum.
From the educator’s point of view: Elizabeth liked the atmospheric settings throughout the museum and the many opportunities for hands-on learning. There were, however, not quite enough exhibits to interest preschool visitors, and Isabella was frustrated that she couldn’t reach buttons and bored while everyone else was reading display captions. This is a great museum for older children, though, with something for nearly every taste and interest.
From the eight-year-old’s point of view: Nathaniel liked the front porch display and the activities that allowed him to put together his own compositions and play with the music.
Our guest Junky, Grammy, also liked the museum’s layout which prevented backtracking, but felt like the labeling could have been more consistent and grammatical.
The Museum has a great website with useful information:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gray Fossil Museum - Gray, Tennessee

The Gray Fossil Museum (Officially the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum Visitors Center at the Gray Fossil Site) is a wonderful, and relatively new, installation centered around the area’s only Miocene-era fossil site.

Found by accident by road crews in 2000, the site was originally believed to be a fairly common Pleistocene-era deposit, but the discovery of the remains of crocodiles and other Miocene animals dated the site to about 5 million years ago. The road was re-routed, and the Gray Fossil Site visitor’s center was constructed.

Open to the public, the museum features a variety of interactive, informative, high-quality exhibits for visitors of all ages. In addition to touring the museum, one can visit the working dig where volunteers and students continue to unearth fossils and take a peek into the lab where the fossils are preserved.

The visitor’s center includes a film explaining the history and discovery of the site, a large area with reconstructed ancient animals in a fantastic, dramatically lit display showing the world they would have inhabited, numerous hands-on activities for children and adults, and a lab area demonstrating the way fossils are cleaned and preserved as well as allowing visitors to try their hands at fossil identification.

In early spring of 2009, the Junkies visited the Gray Fossil site, and we all had a wonderful time. We were all very impressed with the quality of the exhibits, which were of the caliber of much larger institutions. The site offers a full complement of educational programs, special event programming, and visiting exhibits. Learn more about the site and current programs by visiting the website (which also includes some kids’ games)

From the historian’s point of view: Michael really liked the way the displays were laid out, and enjoyed the Appalachian alligator. Plus, it is nice that you can actually walk out the back door and see the excavation. These are not artifacts brought it; they came from underneath your feet, which is a powerful message in the museum world.

From the Educator’s point of view: Elizabeth was very impressed with this site, though it was a little hard for Isabella, in a stroller, to see everything, and it was hard to keep her attention in one spot if she was out of the stroller! The exhibits certainly provide a dazzling and educational visit to the Miocene era, as well as helping even young visitors understand the work done by paleontologists. Particularly impressive was the “dig” area in which children could “excavate” fossils. The “dirt” was actually chunks of recycled rubber, a perfect medium as it did not get the children dirty or hurt them. It was also impressive to see the lab where the fossils are cleaned and see the wonderful variety of creatures who lived in the area in distant past.

From the eight-year-old’s point of view: Nathaniel really enjoyed this museum. He liked all the hands-on displays, as well as the fearsome poses of the mounted fossils! He was particularly impressed with the real dig and the lab areas.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Virginia Museum of Transportation - Roanoke, VA

Some of our museum trips are planned for months in advance. We are going to such-in-such a place to go to this museum for this purpose. However, most of our museum trips are tied to other plans, such as conferences or book signings. Our trip to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia, was just such a trip. Michael had a book signing in Roanoke, and took Nathaniel with him. They spent most of the day at the museum.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT) was created in 1963 as the Roanoke Museum of Transportation, and became the VMT in 1983. It is housed in the 1918 Norfolk and Western Depot in downtown Roanoke. Besides being housed in a historic building, it sits right beside the mainline of the current Norfolk Southern Railroad. Trains are constantly rolling by. Part of the inside of the historic depot has been converted into a “town,” where different displays inside the shops teach about railroad safety, and there are exhibits of railroad photographs. There are two model railroad layouts, including one of a circus train. At the far end of the building is a display of automobiles entitled “From Mud to Mobility: 100 years of Virginia Department of Transportation.” Michael’s favorite was the 1904 Curved Dash Olds.

Other exhibits on the main floor include a reconstruction of a 1940s rural train depot, African-American heritage on the Norfolk and Southern, and an Aviation Gallery.

The real fun starts once visitors are outside. There are scores of locomotives, passenger cars, and freight cars, along with a far number of automobiles. Some of these are under the large shed, and some are sitting in the back lot. If you are into photography, then plan to spend plenty of time in the rail yard, as there hundreds of interesting things to catch your eye. Some of our favorites include the Nickel Plate Road Diesel-Electric Locomotive; the Southern Pullman Sleeping Car “Lake Pearl”; The Illinois Terminal “President One” Business Car; and the Panama Canal GE Electric Towing Locomotive, also known as the “Panama Mule.”
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a great website where you can find more information at
From a historian’s point of view: The numerous cars, planes, trains, and one rocket are enough to keep most folks occupied for hours. The museum is well laid out, and there are numerous placards describing the different pieces of rolling stock in the rail yard.
From a educator’s point of view: Elizabeth did not get to tour this museum.
From a eight year old’s point of view: Nathaniel loved all the rolling stock. He is particularly fond of machinery, so this museum was a real treat for him. Any mechanically inclined kid will love this museum and find plenty to see.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, KY/VA/TN

The Museum Junkies have probably visited Cumberland Gap National Historical Park more than any other historical site in the United States. The Park lies a little over half way between our home in western North Carolina, and Elizabeth’s folks’ home in Kentucky. We’ve made just short stops to use the facilities, we’ve gone into Middlesboro and brought back lunch, and we’ve spent hours exploring the trails and Civil War forts along the slopes and at the summit of the mountains. And we’ve been there in every season of the year: fall (our favorite), winter, spring, and summer. We are also drawn to the area. Both Michael and Elizabeth had ancestors who moved out of western North Carolina and into Kentucky in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and they probably used the Gap to pass through. Plus, Michael has a book coming out this year on a Confederate regiment that was stationed at the Gap in late 1862.

There are numerous historical angles from which to view Cumberland Gap. It was a major north-south road for American Indians. Daniel Boone passed through the Gap, leading bands of settlers on the Wilderness Road; the area was important during the Civil War, and changed hands several times; and there were numerous logging enterprises, a railroad, a new tunnel; not to mention that on its northern boundary is a meteor impact crater. Congress recognized the importance of the area and in 1940, created the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It took 19 years for Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia to purchase the 20,000 acres of scenic mountain terrain.

One of the first stops on entering the Park grounds is the visitor center. The rangers are extremely helpful in answering questions. There is also a small museum inside the visitor center. However, don’t let the small size fool you. The museum walks the visitor through Native American history to the present. There are dioramas and other displays with audio accompaniment that take the visitor on a journey of the area’s history. There are artifacts discovered in the park, along with hands-on exhibits for younger folks. There is also a documentary that airs several times throughout the day. Add to this two different gift shops, and well, you have a really nice facility.

Once outside, only time will limit your exploration. The parking area for the Wilderness Trail area has some great exhibits. There are the remains of a blast furnace, there are tours in Gap Cave, there are tours of the Hensley Settlement, not to mention miles of other trails, two Civil War forts with cannons, wildlife viewing, photography.

We could go on and on. But, let us encourage you to visit the area. You can start at their web site,

From a historian’s point of view: There are a host of historical markers with a lot of good information. Michael’s sure he has not read them all. There are also numerous times of year when different historical interpreters from different areas are on site. Michael does wish the Park had a little more information about the Civil War.

From an educator’s point of view: Elizabeth loves this park. It works on so many levels. The visitors’ center has a great area where children can dress in period clothing. We know from our experiences as interpreters that there is something about wearing the clothes that really makes the experience of history real. This park does a great job of making history a human story. From the beautiful paintings and photographs of excellent interpreters to the exhibits that tell the story of the Gap’s history from the perspectives of different individuals, history comes to life here in a way kids can really understand. Elizabeth particularly loves the area in which visitors walk through an open air exhibit with “footprints” of the Gap’s various travelers—wagon wheels, oxen hooves, moccasins, bare feet (including some very small ones). Visitors can literally walk in the footsteps of those who came here before. This haunting experience is accentuated by the sounds of these travelers and the forest through which they walked.
From an eight year old’s point of view: Nathaniel loves the exhibits that “come to life” with the push of a button, bringing sound and light to wonderful dioramas. He also enjoys visiting the cannons and looking at the fantastic view from the cannon positions.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Catawba Science Center - Hickory, NC

The Catawba Science Center is located in the SALT block in Hickory, NC. The SALT block is a complex that houses various arts and educational programs and facilities. The Science Center includes live exhibits, hands-on learning, and a planetarium. In addition to extensive permanent displays, the Center also features special temporary exhibits. When we visited, on a scorching August 2009 day, the featured exhibit was Swamp Things, with plants and animals (and a fog-breathing alligator sign!)from the swamp. The planetarium is not included in the main $6 admission to the Center (an extra $3 for the adults, as we are not members), but we highly recommend it. The program we enjoyed featured the night sky over the Hickory area, and the presenter was superb. It’s hard to engage an audience in the dark with a laser pointer, but he was wonderful, and we all enjoyed the educational presentation, which concluded with a fun laser show. The Center has both indoor and outdoor exhibits with activities to spark the imagination and intellect of both adults and children of all ages. Even adults without children will enjoy the planetarium and many of the other exhibits. Since the Center is housed in old school buildings, it has a rambling, surprising structure, and even with a map, one never knows what is around the next corner, and one’s first visit will certainly be an adventure of discovery. Unfortunately, this structure, and the other programs housed on the campus, sometimes made it a little hard to find the right door, and we struggled a little with the stroller while we looked for the entrance. Some clearer signage might help with that, but it was the only problem we noticed. While some of the VR equipment was not exactly Hollywood quality, kids will love the earthquake experience, petting pools, and many activities that demonstrate physics, energy, and forces of nature. The Center is very homeschool-friendly, with many programs specially designed for homeschoolers. It is a popular destination for public schools as well, so it might be a good idea to call ahead and make sure that 375 elementary school students won’t be attending the day one plans to visit. You can learn more about the Science Center here.

From the historian’s point of view: Michael really enjoyed the Mars exhibit and the planetarium. Housing the Catawba Science Center in an old school is a fantastic way to re-use old facilities. However, it would have been nice to have some information about the old school for visitors to read.

From the educator’s point of view: Elizabeth thought this was one of the best science centers we have visited; even though the exhibits were good, she was most impressed with the helpful, courteous staff who were very willing to help with homeschool tips and really engaged with the children. There were even plenty of activities for Isabella. Even though she may not have understood all the principles of motion being demonstrated, she loved the Raceways area and the Explore It room. It was nice to have plenty to keep her occupied while Nathaniel took his time in areas he enjoyed. Parents or groups with children of various ages may do well to split up, as we did, to make everyone happy.

From the eight-year-old’s point of view: Nathaniel thought the Center was great! He loved the planetarium, and talked about the Catawba Tonight and Laser show program for days afterward. He also loved petting the horseshoe crabs and playing with the Tesla coil. He has frequently asked to go back.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dublin-Laurens County Museum, Dublin, GA

We’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to some really great places – Versailles, Rome, Athens, Damascus, and now Dublin… Dublin, Georgia that is. All of the other places are in the states, too: Versailles, Kentucky; Rome, Georgia; Athens, Alabama; and, Damascus, Virginia. Thanksgiving this past year found us in the heart of Georgia for a family reunion and we found a little time to go Museum Junkin’.

Our travels took us to the Dublin-Laurens County Museum right in the center of downtown Dublin. The museum is operated by the Laurens County Historical Society. The Historical Society was founded in 1967. The museum is housed in an old library, a Carnegie Library. Scottish-American businessman Andrew Carnegie donated money so than communities (and at time universities) could build libraries. There are almost 1,700 such libraries in the United States, built between 1883 and 1929. Dublin’s library was built in 1903 and 1904.

There are numerous exhibits within the spacious interior of the museum. There is information on early inhabitants, Native Americans, and on local Confederate soldiers. The docent on duty gave us a brief history of the library, and its life as a museum. As is often the case with older buildings, this one was undergoing repairs, so one corner was off limits to visitors.

The Dublin-Laurens County Museum is located on 311 Academy Street. The museum is open in the afternoons and has a web site:
From a Historian’s point of view: Michael enjoyed seeing the seventeenth-century flintlock pistol found in an old chimney in Ireland. He does think that some of the displays could have been better labeled. As with many local history museums, a little less stuff and a little more history would have been nice.

From an Educator’s point of view: Elizabeth really liked the historic wedding dress, invitations, and other mementos as well as the many items from a local family’s sitting room. She also found the labeling hard to read, as the tags were often hand-labeled and faded. Also, many items were hard for younger visitors to see. This museum is not one we consider child friendly, as the docent did not seem at all happy at the sight of visitors under 21, and there was a distinct “hands-off” feel to the exhibits, though there were some great miniatures and historic toys that would interest younger guests, and the history of the library itself would be fascinating to most students as they compare this facility to the libraries they use.

From an eight year-old’s point of view: Though Nathaniel was a little frustrated by not being able to see everything well, he was fascinated by the display of lightning glass (the glass created when lightning strikes sand, as you may remember if you’ve seen Sweet Home Alabama!)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mala Compra Plantation – Palm Coast, Florida

We never set out to go to the Mala Compra Plantation Archeological Site in Palm Coast, Florida. We were driving down A1A, heading toward Ormond Beach, saw the sign, and turned around. We were glad we did. After a day of museum crawling at planned sites (some of which were disappointing), it was great to find this little gem, the best site we visited that day. Mala Compra is a Spanish phrase for bad bargain or bad purchase, and the plantation, one of northeast Florida’s largest, was worked from 1816 through 1836. The plantation was owned and worked largely by one of Florida’s most important early settlers: Joseph Hernandez. Hernandez was born in St. Augustine in 1793. He later joined the United States Army to fight the Seminoles, and was commissioned brigadier general by President James Monroe. Later, Hernandez served as the first Hispanic member of the United States Congress and as the first delegate from the state of Florida. The plantation produced sea island cotton, corn, and sweet oranges, and John James Audubon visited Mala Compra in December 1831. The plantation was burned by the Seminole in 1836. The site was purchased by Flagler County in 1989, and excavations have been performed over the past twenty years. The original house, kitchen, and well have been uncovered. The entire site is preserved under a pole barn-type structure, and artifacts and audio exhibits greet visitors.

Beside the archaeological site, there are numerous hiking trails, places to fish, and a boat launch ramp. The site is open from sunrise to sunset. You can learn more here.

From the historian’s perspective: Michael really enjoyed the original artifacts that are available for viewing. The markers contain a wealth of information about the Hernandez family, their slaves, and life in the early 1800s.

From the educator’s perspective: Elizabeth liked how accessible and visitor-focused the site was, with lights that illuminated areas of the dig while the markers displayed the way that section appeared originally. This really helps visitors, particularly kids, to put the dig in context. Many of the dug items on display were also impressive and great educational tools. The family’s well, a segment of a child’s shoe, and shattered tableware also bring these long dead-people to life for visitors. Even younger children will enjoy this site, as it is not too overwhelming in size, and there is plenty of room to roam.
From an eight year old’s perspective: Nathaniel enjoyed seeing “real” archaeology at work, and was delighted with the solar-powered, timed lights that make the site energy efficient and well as interesting from a technical standpoint. He also enjoyed picturing the site as it existed long ago.