200 Years of Virginia History, Exhibited

by Jon Baliles

Chances are you have driven by The Library of Virginia at 8th and Broad Streets downtown many times. Chances also are that you have never been inside one of the great institutions in the city that holds a treasure trove of information, documents, books and knowledge that will enlighten and inspire (not to mention it is home to a great Virginia gift shop that is a go-to at Christmas).

Antoinette Essa at CBS6 has her story about the library’s upcoming 200th Anniversary and a major new (free) exhibition that opens this Tuesday. “200 Years, 200 Stories, an exhibition,” will focus on all of the “incredible stories in the collections, so we’ve really focused this on the stories. It’s people from every walk of life, every race, every religion,” according to Gregg Kimball, the director of public services and outreach for the library.

The library was founded by the General Assembly on January 24, 1823. Its mission was to care for, organize and manage the state’s growing collections of official records and books.

There are stories based on people who first arrived here in the 17th century and those who first showed up in recent decades. Beyond the stories are artifacts from the whimsical to the most serious. There will be events and programs accompanying the exhibit, which will remain open through October.

Bill Lohmann also has a preview of the exhibit in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and notes the many spaces that have housed the Library since its founding as it grew to include 2 million books, 130 million manuscript items, and a trove of newspapers, maps, prints, and photographs. Its first home was inside the State Capitol, then moved to the Oliver Hill Building in Capitol Square in 1892, then to what is now known as the Patrick Henry Executive Office Building at 11th & Broad Streets before settling into its current home in 1997.

And he also points out that Kimball answers a basic question: Why keep all this stuff?

Acknowledging there’s “a lot of it,” Kimball said, “I think the reason is we do have really compelling stories that tell you about the human condition, that talk about our history and why we’re where we are and that everybody’s story is here.” Not just the powerful and famous, but people who have had a hand in making Virginia what it was and is, he said.

“It’s not a ‘Top 10’ or ’50 Greatest’ or something like that,” he said. “You have a combination of people, some who are well-known figures, but others who were really just regular folks who got into interesting or strange stories in the legal records or petitions or other things we have in the collection.”

Lohmann says that Susan Glasser, secretary of the Richmond Public Art Commission, was the guest curator of the exhibition and has experience working with the Smithsonian and the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center.

The challenge from a curator’s point of view, she said, is “How do you get people curious about what they don’t know they don’t know?”

Amen. And then the article lists some of her highlights, which if they are any indication of what else is in the exhibit, accurately foretell an exhibit that Glasser calls “mind-boggling.”

They include the architectural models and photos of local architect Haigh Jamgochian (see picture), a portrait of Black Hawk, a Native American warrior who fought for the United States and against it, the lock from the Southampton jail cell where Nat Turner was held, plus pieces about Arthur Ashe, the Bedford Boys, Oliver Hill, WWII hero Desmond Doss, Maggie Walker and so many others.

This is an exhibit to get excited about if you are a history geek like me.

This story first appeared in RVA 5×5 and is republished with permission.