Underneath the ever-busy Boatwright Memorial Library sits the Lora Robins Gallery, which holds thousands of works, ranging from fluorescent rocks and dinosaur fossils to ancient Chinese ceramics, and hosts social events for students to explore the unique exhibitions throughout the semester. 

The Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature is the University of Richmond’s natural sciences and decorative arts museum, according to the gallery webpage

“We are essentially the only rock museum in Virginia with this diverse of a collection,” said Martha Wright, coordinator of museum visitor and tour services. “We have had someone from [New] Jersey drive down to see our collection. As some people lovingly call us, we are a hidden gem.” 

The unassuming entrance opens up to a room with rows of large metal display cabinets on both sides filled with sea shells, natural and lab-made minerals, ancient Chinese royal garbs, teeth from a Megalodon — an extinct species of shark  — and meteorites. 

There are also different types of ceramic dog statues and large ceramic pitchers, a piece of modern glass art, a collection of coins from Greece, the Roman Empire and other ancient times and various works of Hindu art. 

The gallery holds a collection of more than 100,000 works, Matthew Houle, curator of museum collections, said. 

The space also features a small side room adorned with fluorescent rock displays. To fully witness the rocks' unique colors, guests can hit a green button on the wall that dims the regular lights and exposes the different rocks to a sequence of ultraviolet lights, illuminating bright and natural neon shades of green, red, blue and purple.

Houle specifically talked about the responsibility to present artwork that most people have never seen before – especially at this university where students can get trapped inside what he described as “a bubble around campus.” 

Despite the wide range of art and collections throughout the gallery, some students have never been inside or have gone only because of a class, they said. One method that has successfully generated a higher student attendance in the galleries is the Meet at the Museum events. 

The Meet at the Museum events are happy hours in the late afternoon when students can enjoy food, beer and wine for those 21 and older, and non-alcoholic mixed drinks for younger students, all while exploring the exhibits with friends, Wright said. 

Those events have recently generated larger crowds than past social gatherings — such as academic lectures with receptions — hosted by the university museums, Houle said.

Senior students in particular are taking advantage of these events and, in turn, some have visited the gallery for the first time. 

Senior Parker Dow attended his first Meet at the Museum event in October. 

“I had no idea this [event] existed in this school and I would definitely go back, you know, if this event were to happen again because I think there are a lot of things there that I probably haven’t seen yet," Dow said. “I had never been [to the gallery] in my four years up to that point.”   

Senior Rachael Overland, who attended the same Meet at the Museum event in October, also spoke highly of it. 

“I think the galleries can be easily overlooked because they are a little tucked away, but events like these are perfect because it opens up opportunities for students,” Overland said. “After my friends and I went to this last Meet at the Museum, we talked about how we are definitely going to the next one and bringing as many people as we can. I think students don’t know how much fun they can be.” 

Both Houle and Wright embrace giving students freedom during these events, they said. 

“I mean, the adults are there to open the doors and swipe cards to make sure people are over 21 if they want to drink,” Houle said.  “Beyond that, we let the students kind of run the show and let them be the face of it.” 

Senior Brandon Kunick said he had noticed students and their friends actually taking an interest in, talking about and exploring the collection during the Meet at the Museum event.  

“Clearly once the students were there, they enjoyed themselves,” said Kunick, who also mentioned his own affinity for rocks. “They just needed a little push to get them there. I think events like that are a really great way to start. Often students have never been, and if they don’t have an outside reason, they won’t go.”

The Lora Robins Gallery was founded by the generosity of the late Lora M. Robins in 1977. Robins originally purchased a collection of sea shells and minerals from a local museum that was going bankrupt to give to the university and in 1989 created an endowment for an educational museum on campus, moving the gallery to its current location, according to the gallery webpage and Wright. 

Contact senior sports writer Jacob Taylor at jacob.taylor@richmond.edu.