In August 2006, the Virginia Historical Society received a generous grant from The Links Foundation, Inc., to construct a web site to showcase some of the items from the Society's collections that pertain to African American history.
Collections documenting the African American experience in Virginia represent a large and growing component of our holdings. A few of these items have appeared in exhibitions organized by our curator of African American history, Lauranett Lee. Some of them are shown in our long-term exhibition, The Story of Virginia, an American Experience. Nonetheless, many people remain unaware of our holdings in this area.
While presenting these treasures through exhibits is one important component of our programming, this is not the only way we reach the public. Like most museums, we display less than 1% of our museum collections at any one time. In addition, few items from our research collections—letters, diaries, photographs, and printed material—will ever be on exhibit. Many of these items are either too fragile or just not visually appealing, yet they hold a special value to researchers and teachers as their contents help to unlock the untold stories of Virginia's past.
Moreover, our exhibitions only reach a small percentage of our audience. As a statewide institution, we have a mandate to serve the entire commonwealth. There are many people who, because of distance, are unable to reach our headquarters in Richmond. Motivated by this concern, the VHS education department has identified teachers as one of its primary constituencies, and getting materials from our collections into their hands for use in classrooms across Virginia is a priority.
One of the most difficult challenges of building a web site is deciding on an overall organizational structure. The structure we have chosen fits most, but not all, of the items selected. For example, there are no typescripts for photographs or printed material. A section such as "Archival Context" may contain a lot of information about one item but virtually none for another. We have developed a format that is flexible enough to allow the best interpretation for each document. In doing so, we adjust the format to fit the item, rather than making the item fit the format. The organizational structure we have chosen is described below.
Title: Each item is identified by its type, its creator, and the year it was produced.
Introduction: This is a sentence or two that is designed to give teachers a quick idea about how the item can be used and what themes might be covered.
Historical Context: This section includes background historical information students and teachers need in order to better interpret the item.
Archival Context: This section explains how each item came to the Virginia Historical Society and provides information about its ownership (or provenance) that can aid interpretation. Many of the items are parts of larger collections, and often the other materials in those collections provide clues that help with interpretation.
The Document: This section explores the item, drawing the reader's attention to specific passages, phrases, or images. It also explains obsolete language, identifies individuals, and provides other editorial emendations to aid analysis.
Typescript: This is a printed version of handwritten items. The creators of this site have tried to render the best possible transcriptions, but have not followed any specific standards of historical editing. Typescripts are designed to be useable by teachers and students.
Activities / Teaching the Document: The suggested activities are designed to get students to look at each item closely and think about what they mean. Thus, they generally do not include many suggestions about follow-up activities, additional research, student projects, and the usual elements of a lesson plan. Nor do they target activities to specific grades. Nonetheless, each item includes the appropriate Virginia Standards of Learning for History and Social Sciences.
Suggested Reading: This brief bibliography includes the secondary sources used in writing the "Historical Context" section, as well as a few other books that pertain to the subject.