Editorial: Virginia’s oldest cultural organization gets a makeover | Editorial

Virginia’s oldest cultural institution will operate the state’s freshest museum in May.

The organization formerly known as the Virginia Historical Society was founded in 1831, with President Andrew Jackson and Governor John Floyd of Montgomery County.

“We are Virginia’s oldest cultural organization,” Jamie Bosket said. “President James Madison was our first member. Chief Justice John Marshall was our first president.

The historical society now passes through Virginia Museum of History & Culture. The name change took effect in 2018, shortly after Bosket became the museum’s president and CEO.

The Richmond-based non-profit organization has focused primarily on research and scholarship for most of its modern existence. “We store here just over 9 million historical artifacts spanning 16,000 years of human history in what we now call Virginia,” Bosket said.

The mission of the museum, however, is being renovated and expanded. “We never did enough to really embrace and reach out and connect with people from all over the Commonwealth,” Bosket said. The museum wants to “take advantage of all this history and reach more people”.

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This mission overhaul goes hand-in-hand with a two-year, $30 million renovation to the museum’s 250,000-square-foot building along Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Due to these renovations, funded by private donations, the museum is closed. But a grand opening is planned for the weekend of May 14-15, with previews leading up to the celebration.

Bosket promises that Southwest Virginia will get a bigger spotlight in the transformed cultural center — in effect, all varied regions of the state will get brighter storefronts.

The centerpiece of the reopened museum will be a massive collaborative exhibit titled “Our Commonwealth”. It will feature digitally projected murals and custom soundscapes of the state’s five major regions: Southwest, Central, Tidal, Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

When a visitor enters the new two-story atrium called Commonwealth Hall and faces an ever-changing 40-foot-wide digital mural, “you can walk in and hear the trees rustle and take in beautiful, breathtaking views of the mountains, hills,” Bosket said.

History museums and historical societies across the state have contributed to “Our Commonwealth,” including from our corner of the country (or should we say mountains?) the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum and the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon.

“They and their counterparts in all the different regions have brought this entirely new look at our state’s history to the fore,” Bosket said.

The museum wants this spirit of statewide collaboration to extend beyond its walls.

Bosket, who is not yet 40, came to the historical society after 10 years working at Mount Vernon. He wants to energize the teaching and preservation of history throughout our Commonwealth.

“This renovation is perhaps the most important thing we’ve ever done, because it’s not just about architecture,” he said. “It’s also about supporting history and its important role in our lives across the state.”

This support will go through the granting of subsidies. “We have also created what we call the Commonwealth History Fund, which is one of the largest of its kind. It’s an ongoing endowment that allows us to donate at least $400,000 each year to local history sites across the state.

This is welcome, wonderful news. Unification and collaboration help cultural institutions thrive at all levels.

In May, the Virginia History Museum will announce the recipients of the first rounds of grants, which can be used for construction and renovations, preservation and conservation, research projects and acquisitions. The fund will distribute $2 million over its first five years.

The statewide outreach that Bosket touts is also a welcome development. To put it bluntly, in the Roanoke Valley and further southwest, offerings from Richmond’s Virginia History Museum have been significantly less accessible than those hosted by the organization’s younger, more glamorous neighbor: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

VMFA’s partnership programs have sent traveling exhibitions to the southwestern part of the state, sharing their offerings with the Taubman Museum of Art, Moss Arts Center, Radford University Art Museum, Eleanor D. Wilson Museum in Hollins, Piedmont Arts in Martinsville, the William King Museum and more.

Under Bosket’s direction, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture intensified its own efforts to organize traveling exhibits for use by the hundreds of history museums and historical societies in the state. This included a traveling version of “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” – a pre-pandemic exhibit that helped attract record attendance.

If Bosket is successful, the Virginia History Museum will continue and expand these offerings, becoming as ubiquitous in local venues as the State Art Museum.

“We also have an eager vision to create a more formal affiliate program that allows us to share exhibits and share content with all the major historical societies,” he said. “We really want to ultimately be like the Smithsonian is for the country. We want to be that hub of historic community spokes here in Virginia.

The prospect of state history keepers from all corners connecting and communicating can only be a boon for the good of all.

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