Editor's note: In the print edition of this story, we reported that Charles Bryan would be retiring from the Virginia Historical Society in September. Bryan is scheduled to retire in December 2008. Also, we reported that Bryan arrived at the society in 1998. He actually started in 1988.
As the story goes, in the mid-'80s a group of board members got into a cab and asked to be taken to the Virginia Historical Society. The cabbie had no idea where it was.
Soon after, Charles F. Bryan Jr. arrived with a mission to change that, to bring the institution, which was known nationally in scholarly circles, to the consciousness of the people of Virginia. And by all accounts, he seems to have succeeded. Bryan has dramatically changed VHS, helped raise more than $110 million and has overseen three expansions of its building on the Boulevard. He will retire in December of 2008 after 20 years with the museum.
Bryan has Parkinson's disease and says he wants to spend more time with his family. But that's not all: He and a colleague plan to start a museum-consulting business, and he is also working on a book about the personal turning points of famous Americans, such as Doug Wilder and John Glenn. Bryan announced his retirement a year early to make the transition easier. But his successor may have a hard time living up to the legacy of the Civil War scholar who turned a library into one of the most respected historical societies in the country.
Style: What has changed since you arrived in 1988?
Bryan: I remember when I came, I said to the board, "We're going to open this place up, we're going to have exhibits, we're going to have school groups here" and that's exactly what they were looking for, and they've certainly given me the support to carry out that vision. In 1988 when I came, we barely had 5,000 people come, and they were mostly scholars to use our library. In recent years we've gone as high as 80,000-plus. And the Web site reaches millions.
What makes VHS stand out?
The VHS is now regarded as one of the top historical societies in the country. There are several reasons for that. For one, it's Virginia history: We have an unusually long and important history. It's such an integral part of American history. Second, we have a remarkable collection of national and international significance. Third, it is what we do with that collection with the resources we have. Our research library is one. We created a state history museum it is regarded as one of the top in the country; it has won all sorts of awards. Education programs, particularly what we do with teacher training and what we do with school tours. We are very highly regarded programmatically.
What do you think we can learn from knowing Virginia's history?
The U.S. has more historical societies than any other nation on earth. It's a freedom we take for granted to learn without censorship. The lessons are profound. The separation of church and state which has been in the news a lot lately the origins of that statute actually started here in Virginia. There are lots of stories that are not so positive that we can learn from too.
You are credited with making VHS more accessible to the public. What did you do?
We made it open every day of the week and things like free Sundays. The general public isn't going to come watch scholars do their research. We created something that didn't exist in the state: all the state's history under one roof, all aspects, all regions. Virginia has some of the best museums Williamsburg, Jamestown but they all deal with a particular aspect of Virginia's history.