Ask any historian. 1831 was a heady year for America.
It was a time when Americans saw heated debates over slavery and abolition, endured emerging government scandals, and felt the rise of evangelical revivalism. The societal changes and population shifts led to the feeling, among a few dozen of Virginia's most prominent citizens, that the state (and the young nation) was losing its common purpose. They formed a historical society so that people would remember the good ol' days.
"It was the 50th anniversary of the battle of Yorktown," says Jamie Bosket, the president and CEO of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, set to reopen this weekend after [two years] of extensive renovation. "Almost all of the founding fathers had passed and there was a generational shift and a moment in this still-young America, a sensitivity in knowing that something unique had happened here and a question of how does that story get preserved?"
Bosket acknowledges that the official state historical society of Virginia is reintroducing itself, nearly 200 years later, during a similarly contentious time - but he says the original mission of the former Virginia Historical Society is still intact.
"In the governing documents of the organization, one prominent line was that the museum would exist to 'promote the best interests of its citizens,'" he says, adding that the museum, criticized by many as elitist and cliquish, occasionally "swerved" from those priorities. "But there was an aspiration at the beginning that it would be a generator of knowledge even if it wasn't always fulfilled in subsequent decades and centuries."
The new and improved VMHC will see its grand opening on Saturday, showcasing an ambitious new exhibit that documents the history of Virginia, "Our Commonwealth," and a visiting Smithsonian Institute display, "American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith" that puts Virginia's story in a wider national context. The re-opening will feature free family activities, a printmaking workshop from Studio Two Three, and live musical performances from Weldon Hill on Saturday, and Bio Ritmo and the Elegba Folklore Society on Sunday.
As one museum employee puts it, this $30 million renovation is "more than just a facelift." The overhaul features a new two-story entrance atrium, an enhanced orientation theater (complete with a stylish, immersive new introductory film), an education center and increased meeting space, and a renovated cafe and gift shop. More importantly, for scholars, the research library has been given a makeover, with a new reading room and book vault.
The organization changed its name from the Virginia Historical Society in 2018, updating its programming and broadening its focus to include more African American and Native American topics. Under new president Bosket, it also initiated a capital campaign for a renovation originally slated to begin this month. "COVID escalated the timeline," says Tracy Schneider, vice-president of marketing and communications. "We decided to take advantage of the time when people were not out and visiting museums. It also allowed us the time to do this and create less traffic problems … it was a challenge but also a benefit."
Museum trustees had decided that there would be no expansion, unlike the vaunted overhaul of the neighboring Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but a redesign of the VMHC's 250,000-square-foot home on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
"The story could fill a space as big as we could produce," says Bosket. "But there were some natural physical limits. We did as much as we could to expand the footprint of the educational spaces and galleries of this building all within the same framework."
A collaboration with dozens of historical institutions across the state - from the Mariners Museum to the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum to the Office of Historic Alexandria - the centerpiece, “Our Commonwealth,” tells the story of Virginia through five separate galleries, using artifacts from the VMHC's nine million item collection, as well as motion murals and regionalized soundscapes. Each gallery represents a region of the state -- Tidewater, Central Virginia, Northern Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Shenandoah Valley -- nodding to the idea that, really, Virginia is five different commonwealths.
"I feel that there is still a very strong sense of community in Virginia," Bosket says. "But people do identify as being from a specific region, like Tidewater, rather than identify as being from Virginia. It was a consideration because the different areas of the state feel distinctive in so many ways."
The new exhibit doesn't shy away from the darker areas of Virginia's past, and tries to present all views, says Joseph Rogers, the VMHC's manager of partnerships and community engagement. This institution is, after all, housed in a building, the former Battle Abbey, originally built to honor and preserve Confederate history.
"All of those different voices and narratives and opinions are there because we want people to be able to see some part of their story throughout the space," Rogers says. "The political affiliations and cultural leanings and divisions are reflected throughout the galleries. They are all a part of the story of Virginia. They can't be divided from each other."
The Virginia Museum of History & Culture will hold a re-opening celebration with live music, free admission and family activities on Saturday, May 14 and Sunday, May 15 at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit VirginiaHistory.org.