Letter from the President
At the Crossroads Again
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
Once again the Virginia Historical Society stands at a major crossroads, as it has done often in its long history. Like the
rest of the nation, our organization has come through some difficult financial times in recent years. Fortunately, we have
emerged in good shape, and now we are pleased to announce the 175th Anniversary Campaign, our most ambitious
capital campaign ever, with a goal of $55 million. This summer we plan to break ground for the building expansion
that is the most tangible component of that campaign. In 2006, that new wing will be ready for us as we celebrate
the 175th anniversary of the VHS.
How did we reach this point? And where do we go from here? It's always a good and useful thing for us—especially for
us as a historical organization—to understand how we got to where we are. Then, properly informed, we can move forward
confidently. So I want to devote this extended president's column to that background and introduce the exciting future we
envision for the VHS.
For much of our early history, we were a wandering organization, moving from one rented home to another.
We lost our endowment during the Civil War, and recovery was long and slow. From a private club for gentlemen
in the late 1880s, the VHS became a respected research library in the early 1900s. Paul Mellon's generosity enabled
us to move our headquarters to an expanded Battle Abbey in 1959. But as late as the mid-1980s, the VHS was
not a leader among historical institutions. We had great collections, we were known to scholars, and we published
a respected quarterly journal. But in truth, we were not welcoming to the public, had few educational programs
or museum exhibitions, and had a small endowment unsupported by any sustained fund-raising effort.
By the mid-1990s we had moved from this virtual invisibility to a high profile. Between 1989 and 2000 we raised
some $60 million, with major gifts from members of the Robins family and from the estate of Paul Mellon. Our
headquarters tripled in size. We began an ambitious program of museum exhibitions. We inaugurated school
programs, both within our walls and across the commonwealth. And our presence on the world wide web
gave us a truly global reach.
As a result, we now enjoy national recognition. We have been accredited by the American Association
of Museums, a designation given to only a tenth of all museums in the country. We've earned many grants
from national funding sources, including three prestigious challenge grants from the National Endowment
for the Humanities. We have won numerous national awards for our programs. We are now regarded
as one of the leading institutions in the history field.
But as a result of that hard-earned recognition, we've discovered in the past few years a number of
significant "good problems" that none of us in the senior administration or on the board ever anticipated.
We didn't realize we would achieve such explosive growth in members, from under 2,000 to about
8,000. We didn't realize that the audience for our expanded lecture series would grow by a factor
of ten-overflow crowds regularly tax our lecture hall beyond its limits. The publicity generated by
the web site has multiplied the demand for our services. And the Virginia Standards of Learning
(SOLs) mandated for public school students have swamped our galleries with visiting groups
of schoolchildren happily learning Virginia history in order to pass their SOL examinations.
The high public profile we have achieved has accentuated another "good problem": people are entrusting
their collections to the VHS at an unprecedented rate. But it's a rate that is unsustainable for us within our
present facility. Manuscript collections have grown by a third in the past few years alone; museum collections
have doubled in size. Among the fabulous additions to our holdings in these years are the Lora Robins
Collection of Art, a sizable portion of Paul Mellon's private library, the incredible Robert Knox Sneden
memoir and watercolors of the Civil War, the unrivaled collection of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms,
and the Reynolds Metals business papers, a signal addition to our greatly expanding collection of
twentieth-century business records. To continue to be able to care for these and other items that
are the very evidence of Virginia's rich history, we must have more space.
The need for the new wing is present, and it is acute. The building expansion will address the
growing demands that the public makes on our educational services. It will allow us to accommodate
the enormous demand for our lecture programs. It will address the growth in collections, with fully
two decades' worth of room for expansion. And in particular, it will provide a home for business
records in the Reynolds Business History Center.
These challenges are incentive enough to expand our headquarters. But they also allow us
to take advantage of the upcoming years of opportunity in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, when
the new wing will open, the VHS will celebrate its 175th anniversary. In 2007 the
commonwealth will celebrate its 400th anniversary of English settlement. These are
occasions that will focus many eyes upon us, and we will put our best foot forward
as the commonwealth's flagship historical institution.
Posted March 2004
• Letter archive
• Charles F. Bryan, Jr. biography