Day trip: A day with kids in the museums of Richmond

The “Animal Inside Out” exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia can be shocking for some, but offers a unique look at the bodies of mammals and sea creatures. Courtesy Science Museum of Virginia The “Animal Inside Out” exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia can be shocking for some, but offers a unique look at the bodies of mammals and sea creatures. Courtesy Science Museum of Virginia

We’re lucky to have Richmond. As a mid-size city, it can offer certain things that Charlottesville doesn’t, but it’s small enough that it’s simple to navigate. And when I took my kids there recently, I was surprised—as I often am—at how easy it is to get there.

That’s not even counting I-64, which might be fast but—I’ll go out on a limb here—is also the most boring stretch of interstate in the nation. Instead, I drove most of the way on 250. Up and down we went over rolling hills, with always something new to look at. For me, that’s well worth a few extra minutes of travel.

Our destinations that day were the Science Museum of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, though I wasn’t certain we’d make it to both. My girls, ages 7 and 5, voted to start with science, maybe because I’d told them about the Body Worlds exhibit, “Animal Inside Out,” on view there this summer. That was a must-see.

But first, we paused in the museum lobby to take in what turned out to be one of our favorite elements of the day: a 96-foot-long pendulum, suspended from the dome of this former train station, traveling back and forth at a stately speed. The 235-pound weight knocks down a circle of pegs, one by one, as the Earth turns beneath it. Witnessing a peg fall feels like an event, and the girls were suitably impressed.

We glanced over an exhibit on speed, finding much of it to be a bit contrived, and pressed on to “Animal Inside Out.” If you’re not familiar with the idea of plastination, it’s a method of preserving bodies by replacing water and fat with plastics, leaving specimens odorless, durable and amazingly intact. Body Worlds exhibits have toured the world since 1995, sometimes stirring controversy. This one, with its focus on animals, offers many different ways to understand anatomy.

Beginning with sea creatures like squid and scallops, then progressing to mammals, we gaped at bodies and body parts in various forms. There are specimens that show the incredible density of blood vessels in a body; others highlight internal organs, or muscles and bones. Plastinated bodies can be shown with skin and fur still on, or partially or totally removed. They can be sliced thinner than paper or opened up like a book.

If you’re wrinkling your nose, this exhibit may not be for you. The bodies are fascinating and sometimes startling—for me, the first mammal I encountered, a horse with its head in three vertical slices, was a minor shock.

But I found the exhibit enlightening, not disturbing, even where it included human bodies. I think my kids agreed. They used words like “creepy” and “wow” and “the perfect thing to be for Halloween.”

They also zoomed through it about twice as quickly as I would have liked to—fair warning for contemplative adults.

Leaving “Animal Inside Out,” we found ourselves learning about the nest-building behavior of the cutlips minnow. This is characteristic of the SMV: A lot of information comes at you, sometimes without much context. It’s up to you whether to interpret for your kids, or just let it all wash over them. An exhibit called “Boost” was, for us, an exercise in confusion.

But we all liked sitting in a small theater to watch “rat basketball”—a short live program designed to teach the basics of behavioral psychology. The girls also enjoyed seeing a working beehive, turtles in terrariums and—again—that beautiful pendulum, always in motion.

We could have walked, as it turned out, to our other two destinations. Then again, parking was so easy (and free) that it caused no stress to drive. We found lunch in Carytown at the Can Can Brasserie. It’s a French place with a pressed-tin ceiling and great service, and the girls loved their “Eloise” drinks—like a Shirley Temple with a sliced orange.

Although the hour grew late, we made a stop at the VMFA anyway, encouraged to do so by the fact that the museum is free. Stopping by for a short time, then, is entirely reasonable. (Maybe, with kids, it’s even preferable.)

On a friend’s recommendation, we headed straight for the display of Fabergé eggs. I lifted each girl up to let her view the intricate creations, whose fineness I’d never appreciated before. We each chose a favorite, and we were enchanted by videos showing how the eggs ingeniously open and unfold.

As at the science museum, the building itself is half the fun—in this case, a modernist gem with a truly lovely, water-filled courtyard. We decided that next time, we’ll reverse our itinerary, starting at the VMFA and topping off the day with a film at the science museum’s Dome theater. After all, we’ll always have Richmond.


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