Virginia Living Museum: Protecting our precious natural world

Beside the Point

Rebecca Kleinhample spending time with rescue owl, Gary, in Virginia Living Museum’s Conservation Garden. (Photo by Cathy Welch)

I was always outside digging in the dirt and collecting rocks,” Rebecca Kleinhample, executive director of Virginia Living Museum (VLM), says of her Pennsylvania childhood. “Now, I marry my experience and skills with my love of science and education.”

VLM founders, Harry Wason, then president of Warwick Rotary and Mary Sherwood Holt, then president of the Junior League of Hampton Roads, shared an interest in creating a museum dedicated to teaching about nature. They established a fundraising effort between their organizations.

“My father instilled in me the appreciation of nature,” Wason says. “We put in hard work to be where we are today.”

“If it had just been Harry, Mary Lou Hatten and me, we wouldn’t be here now,” Holt says. “Our community of wonderful people and volunteers grabbed the idea of teaching nature and science.”

Wason continues active involvement through leadership and financial support. Holt remains active as board of advisors chair.

In 1966, The Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium was completed. In 1976, the museum transitioned into The Peninsula Nature and Science Center and plans began to redesign it into the VLM, housed in a 62,000-square-foot building in 2004.

“I gardened with my dad and fished with my grandfather,” Kleinhample says. “I was mostly outside with my brother playing and have always been interested in science.”

Kleinhample earned a Bachelor of Science degree in general science from Penn State University and a certificate in nonprofit management from Northwestern University. She began working for VLM in 2004 in the membership/fundraising arena and in 2016 became executive director.

“I am finally back to my natural instinct and love after years of for-profit work,” she says.

VLM’s vision is to be the leading organization in the community that “protects what’s precious” in the natural world by serving as a premier sanctuary for wildlife, a leader in science and conservation education as well as a dynamic family attraction that contributes to the region’s quality of life. Its 116 staff members and 450-plus active/seasonal volunteers are passionate about this mission.

Senior leader, Chris Crippen, is a Virginia native and conservation enthusiast. Senior leader, Andrea Svendsen, operates the guest experience division.

“Our largest initiatives are education and animal welfare. Combine those two and you deliver wonderful guest experiences,” Kleinhample says of these leaders’ vital contribution through their divisions.

VLM has a broad reach, including schools from Atlanta and Ohio annually.

“We all feel it’s our local museum,” Kleinhample says. “But we have a widespread draw from the eastern coast.”

VLM features a two-story indoor walk-through habitat, where visitors immerse themselves in natural environments. The Southeastern Cypress Swamp’s cypress and tupelo tree trunks line the area, featuring an alligator and snapping turtle.

VLM’s 30,000-gallon Noland Chesapeake Bay Aquarium showcases Virginia’s natural and living resources to foster understanding and protection of sea life. Its Chesapeake Bay Touch Tank offers visitors the opportunity to touch sea stars, horseshoe crabs and more.

Abbitt Planetarium features a 360-degree revolving dome and university-grade telescope. VLM offers free stargazing the second Saturday each month at the Abbitt observatory rooftop with many telescopes and planetarium shows.

The outdoor boardwalk winds through the woods and showcases a variety of wildlife, eight of which are endangered. Red wolves, the most endangered mammal in North America, are included. The Coastal Plain Aviary features pelicans, herons, egrets and ducks.

Along the outdoor boardwalk trail, guests find the Dinosaur Discovery Trail, with 16 lifelike dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous period, a paleontology camp, dig pits and dinosaur fossils.

VLM’s fall events include “Building Wild with Nature,” where families participate in fun builds, such as the eagles’ nest, projects along the Dinosaur Discovery Trail and a large-block castle.

“We propagate native plants to sell twice a year,” Kleinhample says. “Understanding the need and use of native plants is an important conservation effort.”

VLM’s travel passport program offers members the opportunity to gain free admission to 300-plus centers nationally and internationally.

“Those natural feelings and instincts kids have about their environment come to life at the Museum and make our education programs very relevant, helping them ponder different career fields,” Kleinhample says. “If it sounds like I’m talking about myself, I probably am.”

Kleinhample is part of a local museum CEO group collaborating on best practices. VLM provides subject matter experts in herpetology, ichthyology, astronomy/space science, biology/animal science, geology and environmental science and onsite educational support to local museums.

“We collaborate nationally with hundreds of museums through our accrediting associations,” says Judy Triska, marketing director. “We’ve been recognized by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. and Virginia Departments of Education for promoting achievement in science.”

VLM offers a one-week summer international program called, “Road Scholar” designed for grandparents vacationing with grandchildren.

“We’ve developed programmatic storytelling that engages all ages,” Triska says. “The Museum is not only for children. It has something for all ages!”

“It’s truly gratifying to see different generations enjoying each other,” Kleinhample says. “It is an honor to work for and with our community of education-minded families.”

Virginia Living Museum
Address: 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd.,
Newport News, VA 23601
Phone: 757-595-1900
Contact: Judy Triska, marketing director

About Cathy Welch 74 Articles
Cathy Welch is a Hampton Roads-based writer, photographer and book editor. She says her life is an eclectic mix of career and FAMILY. She earned our Bachelors degree in business administration at Christopher Newport University, minoring in Spanish. Her career has been full- and part-time as an administrator, an engineering assistant, a bookseller, a merchandiser, a naval photography layout assistant, an office manager, a grant writer and a human resource manager, all giving her experiences that feed her writing. She fosters pups and does what she can to bless those who are in need, whether human or canine. She can be reached at 757-870-0768 or at

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