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.