Safety First

Check out the pandemic-inspired revamp of Maymont’s Nature Center.

Maymont’s otter-in-residence, Louis, is missing his adoring public.

After months without an audience of attentive fans, Louis is poised to step back into the spotlight with the limited reopening of Maymont’s Nature Center on July 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To kick things off, there will be a preview period beginning June 28 for Maymont members, which will be followed by public previews.

For now, Maymont will only be open Thursdays through Sundays and tickets must be purchased at Maymont’s website for 45-minute time slots. Among the changes that reflect greater attention to personal safety are the use of timed entry, separate doors for entrance and exit, and limiting visitor capacity.

When the gutting of Maymont’s Nature Center began in November, the staff envisioned opening a revamped building by April, with fewer interior walls and far more interactive exhibits using touch screen technology. COVID-19 changed all that.

“So our cleaning protocols will be far more stringent and detailed,” explains Carla Murray, Maymont’s director of marketing and communications. The space will be cleaned between groups, while hand sanitizer and wipe stations are positioned throughout. “We won’t prohibit touching screens when there’s the opportunity to do so safely using sanitizer and wipes.”

Although a Massachusetts design company and an Atlanta fabricator contributed to the renovation, Richmond represents as well. When Maymont first contacted painter and sculptor Jonah Green last fall about making the front piece for the welcome desk – made of cypress and crafted by a Maymont volunteer – Green had to decline because his calendar was solidly booked traveling the U.S. to participate in art shows. Post-virus, those commitments evaporated.

Because he grew up in Richmond, Maymont holds a special place in Green’s heart.

“My mother was married in the Italian gardens back in the early ’70s and as a kid, we frequently visited the park to climb trees and explore the bamboo patch in the Japanese gardens,” he recalls. “To have the opportunity to be a part of improving such a special place and placing a piece of my art there is an honor.”

The result includes rusted steel panels with fish-shaped cutouts revealing a school of geometric fish in shades of green, blue and yellow enamel, fired by Richmond artist Kim Eubank. To the delight of young visitors, the fish are swimming at eye level. Nearby, a book nook surrounded by a low stone wall invites children to choose a nature book from behind the wall and enjoy it on a colorful ottoman or on the floor, up against a blue-sky wall.

Richmond photographer James Loving signed on to take the photograph of the James River that would become a wall-sized, five-part mural inside the Nature Center. Sprawling out under the mural is a touch and play space, something the Nature Center didn’t have before. Panels at child height along the wall reveal a salamander and other animals found along the river. The irregularly-shaped wooden pieces scattered about the floor are modeled on the rocks – familiar to any regular river goer – in the photomural above. Near the beaver lodge, large enough to crawl into to see the lifelike beavers, is a child-height scope allowing visitors to spy on the osprey high on a platform near the ceiling.

Occupying a prime location and starting from the floor is the River Reach, a 34-foot active sculpture with 27 platforms that allows children to climb until they reach the ceiling. Attached to green stems reaching upward, each platform is designed to resemble a healthy organism found in the James River, making, according to Murray, the climber, “part of our educational mission.”

In addition to 13 aquariums full of James River species, there are new ways to identify the species in the tanks with touch screens. The buzz, though, centers on the acquisition of new baby Atlantic sturgeon, some of the oldest and largest fish on Earth. Getting the young fish required a permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services because of their endangered status.

Much about the revamped Nature Center will be new to visitors, even longtime regulars. By eliminating many of the inside walls, the space feels much bigger and light-filled. Venomous snakes and amphibians still occupy tanks, but not far away is a learning center with stools and screens for visitors to play games and learn trivia related to nature.

Even the center’s retail installation bears the mark of artistry. Rusted steel panels with cutouts of local fish – long-nose gar, catfish and bass – were created by Ashland artisan Josh Bauserman and hang over a cypress cabinet highlighted with a mahogany inset carved to resemble a river. The shelves hold nature books, jars of mint and chamomile, earrings of native species and eco-friendly bird houses for sale.

Learning and playing aside, Maymont is ready to welcome visitors safely. Among the new experiences at the Nature Center and not far from the baby sturgeons’ tank is a model of an adult sturgeon. At six feet long, it’s a strong visual for imagining the required room for social distancing.

Maymont Nature Center at 2201 Shields Lake Drive will open Thursdays – Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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