Published December 6, 2023

Wonder Universe has been overtaken by dragons! With the help of a Virginia Humanities grant, Dr. DorothyBelle Poli and her team at the Dragon Research Collaborative have opened a new exhibit called Fossil Tales. This new experience takes young visitors into a new world based off of the Dragon Research Collaborative more than thirteen years worth of research into the links between the lore of dragons and our knowledge of nature. 

We recently sat down with Dr. Poli to learn more about this project’s origins, her experience curating for a younger audience, and how her young visitors are reacting to the project.  

What, exactly, is the Dragon Research Collaborative?

The DRC is a transdisciplinary think tank that approaches the idea of plant fossils being the inspiration of dragon mythology around the world. Some of our research has focused on children and story. In addition to the research, we have developed festivals surrounding dragon folklore and the fossils.

What inspired you to study dragon lore? 

Two actors stand as a part of Fossil Tales exhibit in 2020 (photo courtesy of Lisa Stoneman, DRC)

The project started when Dr. Lisa Stoneman heard me giving a talk about Appalachian plants. Modern lycopodium is small and often used for explosion special effects in movies, as a poor man’s talc, or to create wreaths during the holiday season. But the ancient plants were gigantic and had these incredible scale patterns. During my talk, I mentioned that when we were in the quarry, pulling these fossils out for the Virginia Museum of Natural History, we joked about “dragons” being in the walls. You could just see them in there like puppies in cloud formations. After the talk, Dr. Stoneman questioned me about the dragons.  

Together we sat down and came up with a plan. I mapped where the fossils were located and she mapped (as best as she could) the origins of dragon stories. We placed the maps on top of each other and realized we were on to something. 

This project incorporated the larger work of the DRC into an exhibition tailored to children. What has it been like interpreting your work to a young audience?

We knew that children loved dragons and stories. We also knew that children enjoyed the ideas of fossils and plants playing a role in these dragon stories. We gathered those ideas and decided that if we focused an exhibit around fossils and folk tales, that kids would enjoy it. They do! It doesn’t hurt that a giant dragon sits with them while they read.

On October 28th, you all hosted a Renaissance-festival themed opening event for the exhibition at Wonder Universe. Give us a taste of that afternoon; do you have a favorite memory from the event?

Over the years, we have developed some great relationships with like-minded area people. One group in particular is the Vikings of the Valley. We had four Vikings with us for the opening and the children loved them. They played with toys and took pictures in a Viking ship and with weapons of shield maidens and warriors.  Seeing the wonder and acceptance of children is always a fantastic experience.

Our cake artist never ceases to amaze us. Her latest creation of a young dragon sleeping in a tree — all 3D — was a gravity defying feat of art and engineering. Every visitor stopped to watch her construct the piece in real time — one child waited all day so he could have a piece!

While curating Fossil Tales, what did you hope that your audience members will leave remembering? 

We always want any visitor to realize that our understanding of the world around us is inspired by how we interpret that world. Our environment constantly challenges us and the beginning of science stems from those questions we generate. Our first natural history was most likely something akin to dragon tales, explaining fossils we had no understanding about. Science literacy is more than just facts — it’s a process!

Dragon installation as part of the Dragon Research Collaborative’s work at Roanoke College. Photo courtesy of Roanoke College

Is there anything else you would like to share about the process of developing Fossil Tales

Creating an exhibit is always a team task; we can only put on a full show when we bring the right people together. We managed to breathe life into a cave-dwelling dragon who hoards books and teaches children about Carboniferous fossil plants in a lowkey way, while also inspiring curiosity and imagination.

Fossil Tales is on display at Wonder Universe in New River Valley Mall of Christiansburg, Virginia. Check out their Facebook page for updates and more information about visiting the exhibit. 

Grant Opportunities

Learn more about our grants program and how you can apply for support from Virginia Humanities for your next project. Applications for our Regular Grant cycle close on January 19, 2024.

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