MARTINSVILLE, VA. -- A legislative subcommittee will conduct a hearing this week to consider designating the Virginia Museum of Natural History the state's official natural history museum.

Museum Director Noel T. Boaz said Tuesday that he is "guardedly optimistic" that the lawmakers, who were scheduled to tour the museum this week, will favor the designation.

"I think we have a convincing presentation," Boaz said.

The presentation includes a proposal for a network of natural history museums throughout the state, Boaz said, with the headquarters in Martinsville and branches at Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and the Southwest Virginia Museum in Big Stone Gap.

Such a network would provide places for the state's wealth of natural history resources to be stored for researchers and the public to examine, Boaz said.

"There are collections scattered all over the state, and many are not even catalogued," he said.

The proposal calls for the main Martinsville museum to get a high-density storage system to increase collections space by 40 percent, Boaz said.

A second phase would feature a 20,000-foot addition to bring the total exhibit, storage and office space to 46,000 square feet.

But Boaz said that this week's meeting, the second of three by the 10-member subcommittee, will concentrate on the designation, not on potential funding for expansion.

Boaz has lined up a lengthy list of backers, including university professors, two officials from the Smithsonian Institution and state Secretary of Education Donald J. Finley, to speak to the legislators in support of the designation.

"If they buy the program," Boaz said of the lawmakers, "we'll start talking dollars next month."

He added that the museum has gathered $1.2 million in donations and owns the former elementary school building that currently houses the collections.

Boaz said the designation would fill a void in the state's museum system.

He noted that Virginia has excellent fine arts and science museums, but he said, "We just do not have a good natural history museum. It's a big gap."

Private collectors often are hesitant to donate their collections unless they are assured that the museum will remain in operation, Boaz said. An official designation by the state "is sort of a stamp of approval," he said.

He added that, as a state agency, the museum could work closely with other state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, in preserving fossil finds uncovered during construction.

"A lot of important sites have been lost, gone unrecognized and presumably paved over," Boaz said.

He said he hoped that the subcommittee will make a final report on the designation by September.