During the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses and organizations have been adversely affected, with some being forced to shut down completely; one such entity is Charleston’s T-Rex Science Center, which announced its impending closure earlier this month.
When the museum was first unveiled in January of 2019, it was an ambitious plan, one that would include a massive indoor trail weaving through a prehistoric forest populated with the replica skeletons and animatronic versions of countless dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, as well as a classroom for visiting students. Perhaps the most important point of all was that this museum was to include a dedicated fossil lab, where ancient remains recovered from West Virginian rocks could be studied and stored safely and permanently. No longer would important fossils, such as those of vertebrate animals, be shipped off to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh or the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; West Virginian kids would get to come to a West Virginian museum, the first of its kind, and watch West Virginian scientists work on and educate about West Virginian fossils.
After some struggles with securing the prime real estate they initially sought, a smaller version of the museum opened on November 15th, 2019, behind Sky Zone at Southridge Boulevard, in Charleston. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, T-rex Science Center functioned entirely off hardworking volunteers, ticket sales, and the support of local businesses, namely JS Breeden Builders, Inc. and Prehistoric Planet, LLC. For a time, the museum was seemingly doing well, adding more exhibits and even opening a dinosaur-themed mini golf course.
Then in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the science center was forced to close for two months out of an abundance of safety, despite having barely gotten on their feet. They reopened in May with proper social distancing protocols, a face mask requirement, and thorough sanitization per CDC guidelines, though things weren't what they used to be. Ticket sales had dropped by half, yet the cost of rent, utilities, and supplies hadn't changed. Then, once schools virtually restarted in the fall, any hope of field trips to the center went out the door; this, along with the start of fall sports, caused attendance to plummet even further. The Charleston museum isn’t alone in this struggle, however; the American Alliance of Museums estimates that museums across the US are losing $33 million per day due to coronavirus-related closures, and that without significant financial assistance, as many as 30% of the country’s museums, mostly in small and rural communities, will never reopen.
Unfortunately, it seems as though T-Rex Science Center will be one of these. In an announcement made on their website around their one-year anniversary, the heads of the organization stated that the museum “cannot survive such a wave of unforeseeable circumstances,” and that the nonprofit will be “going extinct” by the end of 2020. However, it was also stated that they hope to keep their gift shop open until sometime after Christmas, so that people can find unique, prehistoric-themed gifts, and that “We hope to be able to reopen the T-Rex Mini Golf Course in the spring of 2021.”
It was explained that, while it had always been difficult finding volunteers to staff the science center, “due to COVID-19 concerns, our volunteer pool dwindled to only five people trying to keep 26,000 square feet clean, sanitized, and maintained. These dedicated volunteers are tired and overworked, but they persisted.” The organization also stated that it reached out to various city, county, and state officials for help, including the Kanawha County Commissioner, every state senator and delegate, and even Governor Justice. Few of them replied, and “none offered any assistance or hope.”
The dinosaurs may have gone extinct due to an asteroid impact 65 million years ago, but it seems as though West Virginia’s own dinosaur museum is yet another victim of COVID-19.