By Martha Wessells Steger –
Special to the Eastern Shore Post –
The newly expanded Virginia Museum of History & Culture, next to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond’s Museum District, sheds a broader light on coastal Virginia and on other regions of the commonwealth, including Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
When museums expand, they have an opportunity to do more than simply increase space – and the VMHC has done that, with the addition of almost 50% more exhibition space. Going far beyond that is the complete transformation of the VMHC with a $30 million renovation, the most extensive in its nearly 200-year history.
In reimagining two-thirds of its nearly 250,000-square-foot building, the VMHC has added multiple new exhibitions and galleries. “Our Commonwealth,” a marquee long-term exhibition, is the centerpiece of the museum’s new offerings. It provides an in-depth, multi-sensory exploration of the five major regions of Virginia – Coastal Plain/Tidewater, Piedmont, Blue Ridge Mountains, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateau. (For a graphic representation of the regions, check out www.virginiahistory.org)
Each region features stories and artifacts from partner organizations and cultural institutions within that region — a unique approach to exhibition development. Our Commonwealth takes visitors on memorable and scenic journeys with vibrant murals — largescale, changing digital projections — and custom soundscapes that immerse them in the arts, culture, food, music, industry, and people of each region.
Tidewater and the Eastern Shore
In the Tidewater gallery, the geographical term tidewater is graphically illustrated in subsections referring to “Working on the Water”; “Going to the Beach, Oceanfront and Tributary Rivers”; “Building Boats”; “Launching the Fleet”; “Shipping Through Ports”; “Honoring Landmarks”; “Governing the People”; and “Making Music.”
Among the gallery’s exhibits, items on loan from the Eastern Shore Historical Society help tell the story not only of the Eastern Shore but of the entire region. Included are a 2016 mallard drake decoy by Grayson Chesser and a scaup or bluebill hen decoy by Miles Hancock (1887-1974). A log canoe model, also from ESVHS, and a deadrise – the traditional work boat for watermen — illustrate the types of boats used for fishing and oystering until dredging became the norm.
In the cabinet with a U.S. Navy working uniform are, from ESVHS, a “full-dress cocked hat” (Jacob Reed’s sons) and a “white dress cap” (Sze Tailor) along with an 1880s “spyglass or telescope” from William Waters, of Nandua. The detail under the telescope explains that Waters lent his father’s spyglass to the U.S. Navy during World War I; after the war, the Navy returned it to him with a letter of appreciation.
This is all part of an exciting mix of long-term and changing exhibitions plus other amenities: a two-story entrance atrium, an immersive orientation theater, an entirely new research theater, several community and gathering spaces; a new campus connector between the VMHC and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; enhanced green space; and a new cafe and museum store.
Upcoming Exhibitions, Film Presentation
In conjunction with its reopening, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture will debut multiple new exhibitions and galleries. These include “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” a Smithsonian-organized exhibit that will dynamically bring the great American experiment of democracy to life; “Treasures of Virginia,” featuring objects associated with Virginians who, through extraordinary leadership and creativity, have worked to shape the future of both our state and our nation; “Commonwealth Explorers,” a new interactive learning space for the museum’s youngest guests; and “History Matters,” an introductory exhibition that speaks to the ways history connects us all.
The new Lettie Pate Evans Orientation Theater screens “Imagine Virginia,” a 17-minute film highlighting indelible moments and scenes in Virginia history – natural and human — and serving as an introduction to the reimagined museum. Using voices, imagery, music, sound design, and theatrical effects, “Imagine Virginia” explores the natural and socioeconomic forces that converged in Virginia, shaping the commonwealth’s history and culture.
The “History Matters” gallery will feature selections from VMHC’s vast collection of 9 million items, inspiring visitors to seek a deeper understanding of the transformative power of history through several themes, including how history helps us discover ourselves and connect with our communities; how it motivates us to explore and be creative; and how it inspires our future by helping us to understand our past.
Artifacts in the installation include sneakers worn by Rainbow Minute radio show co-host Judd Proctor at his wedding to co-host Brian Burns in 2006, an early 1900s child banjo from Carroll County, a rare portrait of Meriwether Lewis, a shovel used on Admiral Richard Byrd’s exploration of the South Pole, original photographs of Civil War soldiers, and a terra-cotta bowl made by Pamunkey Indian artist Mary Bradby.