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OPINION: State history museum makes room for Southwest Virginia

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Virginia’s oldest cultural institution will be operating the state’s most fresh-faced museum come May.

The organization formerly known as the Virginia Historical Society was founded in 1831, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the governorship of Montgomery County’s own John Floyd.

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

The historical society now goes by Virginia Museum of History and Culture. The name change took effect in 2018, not long after Bosket became the museum’s president and CEO.

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

The museum’s mission, however, is undergoing renovation and expansion. “We have never done enough to really embrace and reach and connect with the people from all across the commonwealth,” Bosket said. The museum wants to “take advantage of all that history and reach more people.”

This rethinking of the mission goes hand in hand with a two-year, $30 million renovation within the museum’s 250,000-square-foot building along Richmond’s Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Because of those renovations, funded by private donations, the museum is closed but plans a grand opening the weekend of May 14-15, with preview events leading up to the celebration.

Bosket pledges that Southwest Virginia will receive a bigger spotlight in the transformed cultural center — indeed, that all the state’s varied regions will get brighter showcases.

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

When a visitor comes into the new two-story atrium called Commonwealth Hall and faces a 40-foot-wide, ever-changing digital mural, “you may walk in and hear the trees rustling and look up at gorgeous, stunning vistas of the mountains, of the hills,” Bosket said.

History museums and historical societies from all over the state contributed to “Our Commonwealth,” including from our neck of the woods — or should we say mountains? — the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum and the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon.

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

The museum intends for this spirit of statewide collaboration to expand beyond its walls.

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

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

That support is going to involve giving out grants. “We have also created what we’re calling the Commonwealth History Fund, which is one of the largest of its kind. It’s a permanent endowment that allows us to give away at least $400,000 every 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 renovation, preservation and conservation, research projects and acquisitions. The fund will give away $2 million in its first five years.

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

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

Under Bosket’s leadership, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture has stepped up its own efforts at putting together traveling exhibitions for use by the state’s hundreds of history museums and historical societies, including a traveling version of a pre-pandemic exhibition that helped draw record attendance, “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality.”

If Bosket has his way, the Virginia history museum will continue and expand these offerings, becoming as ubiquitous in local venues as the state art museum.

“We also have a vision looking forward of creating a more formal affiliates program that allows us to share exhibits and share content to all the great historical societies,” he said. “We really want to be ultimately like the Smithsonian is for the country. We want to be that hub of the spokes of the history community here in Virginia.”

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

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