Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Civilization (in Three Acts)

The Virginia Historical Society reminds us that you can mind your own business, but the next thing you know, Europeans are everywhere.



Just as Jamestown's museums are being congratulated (even by the queen) for including the role African and Native Americans had in our first colony, the Virginia Historical Society takes the cultural exchange one step further. To celebrate Jamestown's 400th, a VHS exhibit compares it to two other early settlements in North America: Quebec (established by the French in 1608) and Santa Fe (established by the Spanish in 1609).

The exhibit, "Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings," explores how the different groups of settlers built their societies and how the Native Americans shaped and were influenced by the Europeans. General comparisons are interesting to note; both the Spanish and the English, for example, clashed with the natives, while the French were too small in number in Quebec to cause trouble. The exhibit also considers the roles of the various tribes in the burgeoning economies of the settlements, defined by tobacco in Jamestown, fur trading in Quebec and farming in Santa Fe. Behind the artifacts are the looming warfare and disease that devastated the indigenous societies.

One difficulty of the exhibit is that because each topic has three pieces of information (for each of the settlements), and each is in three languages (English, French and Spanish), the type in the signage is small, making it sometimes difficult to extrapolate meaning when you're just trying to find the information.

James C. Kelly, director of museums at VHS and curator of the exhibit, admits it wasn't an egalitarian spirit that sparked the idea for examining the three colonies — it was a practical one. VHS wanted to do something for the 400th anniversary, but since Jamestown has three museums of its own, he knew there would be stiff competition for local 17th-century artifacts. (There aren't very many to begin with.) So by covering three different locations, organizers had three places to look for financial support. (One of the local sponsors, the Virginia title insurance company Land America, got excited that the oldest land deed was going to be in the exhibit, says Kelly.)

Despite the competition, VHS found some interesting artifacts to illustrate such topics as spiritual life, trade and warfare. One object is the oldest Bible in continuing use, from the Merchant's Hope Church in Hopewell.

Kelly says some artifacts are so precious they had to be flown over from Paris with a courier, and VHS had to pony up for a seat on the plane for both the artifact and the courier. Also, insurance is high on these rare pieces. The most expensive to insure in the exhibit is the only map made by a Jamestown colonist, which essentially depicts the rivers the colonists had explored.

The reason the exhibit is in three languages is not only because the museum wanted to avoid an Anglophile point of view, but also because the exhibit will be shown in St. Louis, Albuquerque and Gatineau, Quebec. (It will then return east and be displayed at the Smithsonian.) But a traveling exhibit must be somewhat compact, and that requirement unfortunately takes a toll on the clarity here.

Banners similar to giant window shades hold most information, but with three sets of facts in three languages, it's difficult to follow or even figure out where to begin. The exhibit hall at VHS is oddly shaped, too, in that visitors enter into the middle of the exhibit. The pamphlets and catalogs are on one side of the space, and the introduction to the 1600s is behind visitors when they enter the room.

The exhibit could have used stronger graphics to guide the visitor; a subtle colored arrow is supposed to signify which colony you're reading about. There are a number of banners — some of which display information about all three colonies and others contain information about just one — but they are all cream-colored and nearly indistinguishable. While viewing the information isn't always easy, the exhibit is interesting and worth a visit. Most Virginians know the story of Jamestown, but VHS offers us the chance to think about what it might have been like if the Spanish or French had settled here instead. S

"Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings" runs at the Virginia Historical Society through Sept. 3. Guided walks through the exhibit will take place May 23 and Aug. 22. For more information, call 358-4901 or visit

  • Click here for more Arts & Culture
  • Add a comment