Roanoke has a long history as the commercial and cultural center of western Virginia. The city became a transpiration hub when the Shenandoah Valley Railroad joined the Norfolk and Western Railway in 1882. Known for its landmark sign, the Roanoke star, which beams nightly from nearby Mill Mountain, Roanoke is an excellent base for exploring the area’s attractions, including the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Booker T. Washington National Monument.
Center in the Square
The big news is that Center in the Square, a long time cultural center, has been rebuilt into an ultramodern, energy efficient facility. It celebrated its grand re-opening this past spring. The lobby is an exciting entryway, complete with aquariums, large video screens and a huge butterfly on the floor. The building houses three museums which moved in from temporary quarters. When I visited the museums about a month ago, they were well established though not quite finished.
Harrison Museum of African American Culture
The permanent collection of the Harrison Museum consists of photographs, posters, paintings and objects related to the history and culture of the Roanoke Valley’s black communities. The museum also hosts traveling exhibitions when appropriate. One of the exhibits that caught my eye was a series of painted panels entitled “The Dance”, which portrayed an elegantly dressed dancing couple.
History Museum of Western Virginia
Focusing on the cultural heritage of the area, the History Museum sports a number of beautiful galleries split between two floors. Aside from the exhibitions, the museum is a repository for artifacts that trace the Roanoke Valley’s human history, including Native American arrowheads, old texts, colonial surgical instruments as well as more recent signs and objects that illustrate how we live and used to live. The collection is therefore invaluable both to visitors and to scholars seeking factual historical information.
Science Museum of Western Virginia
The Science Museum is a treasure trove especially interesting to children, although anyone who is curious about the natural world will find something of interest. Educational, entertaining and creepy, all at the same time, was an exhibit of posters showing human parasites, such as bedbugs and fleas. After shuddering past these critters, my next stop was the museum’s highlight, the butterfly garden. Entry to the garden is through an airlock, to keep the butterflies from escaping. Even without the butterflies, the garden is magnificent. Colorful flowers are everywhere. It is interesting to see that certain butterflies are attracted to certain flowers, sometimes preferring one plant above all others. The butterflies have a limited life span and must be replaced every few weeks. The colorful insects put on a great show, and the experience of slowly walking through the serene garden was relaxing.
Roanoke’s old standby is the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Although it has an eclectic collection, the focus is on the history of the railroad in Roanoke. Appropriately housed next to railroad tracks, the museum boasts two venerable steam locomotives, a Norfolk & Western Class J 611 and a Norfolk & Western Class A 1216. The auto collection is impressive and should be of great interest to car buffs. Nearby is the Link Museum, honoring the work of the famous railroad photographer. Aside from the excellent night photos of locomotives, I was impressed by the collection of brass railroad buttons. Finally, the Taubman Museum of Art is well worth a visit. The building is itself a work of art. In the main section I came across a “perpetual motion machine” which was immobile. Probably, it ran into the laws of thermodynamics and came to an abrupt halt.