Our Collections -- The Foundation of Our Educational Mission
The experience of viewing artifacts helps people of all ages and backgrounds better understand the past, a fact that makes the value and care of our collections compelling. In fact, our collections are the tools essential to fulfilling our mission. With them, we serve a broad public, from scholars to schoolchildren to casual visitors. Each year, we add between 2,000 and 3,000 items, and that number is growing because of our reputation as good stewards. Our research library is known nationally for its comprehensive holdings, which represent Virginia's rich history and encompass seven million processed manuscripts, nearly 5,000 maps, 1,200 newspaper titles, 300 serials, and 140,000 volumes -- 14,000 of which are rare books. We owe a great deal of thanks to Assistant Director for Manuscripts and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist E. Lee Shepard, Assistant Director for Library Services Frances S. Pollard, Assistant Director for Museums James C. Kelly, and their respective staffs for continuing the Society's high standards of collections care.
Because we collect for the people of Virginia, our materials represent every era and every part of the state, as well as Virginia's role in national and international history. Setting us apart from other museums in the state, we have the unique ability to interpret broad themes in Virginia history.
A classic case of the effect of our collections on our constituencies is the Robert Knox Sneden collection. In the 1990s, thanks to the generosity of Mr. & Mrs. Floyd D. Gottwald, Jr., the Society acquired an unpublished 5,000-page Civil War memoir along with nearly 1,000 watercolors by Sneden, a Union army mapmaker. Nelson D. Lankford, assistant director for publications and education, and I were privileged to serve as the editors of these amazing volumes. The resulting book, Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, became the number one best-selling title on amazon.com on 30 December. An initial press run of 58,000 copies was quickly exhausted, resulting in a second printing. The book has since gone into its fourth run, with approximately 100,000 copies in print. Such an overwhelming response has prompted the Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, to initiate publication of a new book of Sneden's watercolors. In part because of the addition of our Sneden web site and the popularity of Eye of the Storm, we've experienced a 55 percent increase in electronic visitation between 1999 and 2000. Coinciding with the book is an exhibition of Sneden watercolors that travels to the New -York Historical Society, the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Huntington Library in California. Seldom has there been a more vivid illustration of the ability of newly discovered collections to pique interest in and enhance the understanding of a chapter in American history. The VHS trustees saluted Alice Munro Haagensen for her help in finding part of the collection and helping to bring Sneden's work to light by appointing her an honorary member of the VHS.
During 2000, the Virginia Historical Society was also the fortunate recipient of a substantial portion of the late Paul Mellon's library, which has been hailed as one of the most significant private libraries of Americana of the twentieth century. In what was both a tribute to the Society's already formidable collections and an unprecedented source of enrichment for future scholars and researchers, the Mellon estate awarded over 2,000 items to the VHS, including many rare or unique books, manuscripts, maps, and prints that will be invaluable to interpreting our state and national history. In May, Associate Director Robert F. Strohm was recognized as the Society's first Paul Mellon Curator of Rare Books. The VHS will show a portion of Mr. Mellon's collection in a September 2001 exhibition titled Treasures Revealed from the Paul Mellon Library of Americana. A symposium, timed with the exhibit opening, will feature scholars from around the world who will discuss this remarkable collection.
Our collection of Confederate-made weapons is considered the finest in the world, and highlights are featured in the long-term exhibition, Arming the Confederacy. Thanks to generous gifts from Mr. & Mrs. Bruce C. Gottwald and Mr. & Mrs. Floyd D. Gottwald, Jr., in 2000, we acquired weapons produced by the Virginia Manufactory of Arms from 1802 to 1821. The new collection, gathered over four decades by collector Giles Cromwell, will be exhibited adjacent to Arming the Confederacy to provide a continuous narrative about Virginia arms production and southern industrialization from the end of the Revolution through the Civil War.
These are our tools, many of which we were able to obtain thanks to the vision of individuals, foundations, and corporations that have joined us to build our collections of Virginia's historic treasures. We are grateful to the Elis Olsson Memorial Foundation and members of our board, including Nicholas F. Taubman, Alan M. Voorhees, L. Dudley Walker, and Anne R. Worrell -- who assisted with the establishment of a very generous acquisitions fund in 2000. The VHS was able to make additional acquisitions of important Virginia history paintings and landscapes with support from Lora Robins. These acquisitions are listed elsewhere in this report.
Our exhibitions, of course, provide a venue for us to share these treasures with the public. We handled an unusually ambitious slate of exhibits in 2000 -- eight in all -- including The Virginia Landscape, the magnum opus for the year, which was curated by Drs. James C. Kelly and William M. S. Rasmussen. The success of this magnificent exhibit was attributable in large measure to the Robins Foundation, which provided generous funding for the project. Additional support came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
Other year 2000 exhibitions included Robert Gwathmey: A Retrospective; Woodrow Wilson: Hinge of the 20th Century; and Virginia Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery (sponsored by First Union). Our long-term core exhibit, The Story of Virginia: An American Experience, continues to serve as a model for other museums planning state history exhibitions.
At Virginia House, the exhibition Campaigning for President was based on the collection of presidential election material assembled by Dr. Allen Frey. Also showing at Virginia House, The Best of Virginia's Historic Landscape Architecture included Virginia House along with thirteen other recipients of the Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects' Centennial Medallion. To symbolize the rich history of architecture and the importance of Virginia House as a treasured landscape, a Centennial Medallion plaque is now displayed at the site.
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