Virginia Historical Society offers a look at artifacts and oddities for free

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Friday, March 5, 2010; WE18

It looked like a fossilized animal dropping on red fabric inside a black-frame box. I wondered, "Why do people keep things like that?" Then I read the handwritten description: "Original Civil War twists of tobacco from the tobacco warehouse in Richmond." Aha. That's why.

Near the box with the twists stood tins of Pride of Virginia chewing tobacco as well as relics of tobacco's legacy, such as a cigarette pack depicting a child smoker and brands with such names as Bad Habit and Consummate Ass. Talk about truth in labeling -- and this was before smoking was acknowledged as a health hazard.

I was in the "Virginians at Work" exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society's Center for Virginia History in Richmond, drawn by the society's decision, in a recession concession, to waive the museum's $5 admission for 2010. I couldn't help thinking that was a real gift, because there's much more here than you can absorb in a single visit. The entire span of Virginia history -- from the Powhatan Indians to immigrants to the Civil War and beyond -- is explored in the museum's 200,000 square feet, about the size of a Wal-Mart. There are silver punch ladles, arrowheads, tree-trunk canoes, Confederate rifles. There'd be more on Dolley Madison, wife of our fourth president, but apparently she sold things to stay out of the poorhouse. There are audio phones and interactive displays, plus Colonial costumes to don. Artifacts are often displayed at child (or short adult) eye level.

That's because children are among the museum's best customers. About 11,000 schoolkids, mostly fourth-graders -- the level at which Virginia history is introduced into the public school curriculum -- visited in 2009. The January day I was there, a group from Ratcliffe Elementary in Henrico County sat quietly through a film about the Civil War that included photos of battlefield horrors. "With the Civil War exhibit, one of the challenges was that some of the images were extremely graphic," said William B. Obrochta, the society's director of education, who worked with teachers to explain in clear language the use of opium as a painkiller and to describe diseases such as syphilis.

Volunteer docent Ronald Waller took the Ratcliffe group through the Civil War gallery, pointing out the wheelchair used by Robert E. Lee's wife "because she had arthritis so bad she couldn't walk around."

Many of last year's 52,583 visitors no doubt came, as I did, to see the memorabilia of such famous Virginians as Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, whose piercing eyes, in William Garl Brown's 1866 portrait, followed me as I moved about the room. The museum doesn't shy away from slavery, either. It's mentioned throughout, including in an exhibit, running through April 11, on abolitionist John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry.

Extensive as its exhibits are, it turns out that not everything the museum owns is on display. James C. Kelly, director of museums, is working on a June exhibit of what he calls weird things. "Nominations fall into several categories that I'll call body parts," he said, as well as "death, disaster, bad habits . . . and waging war."

Gone are the toenail clippings sent by a sailor "as a token of endearment" to his wife, Kelly said, but "we have the censored letter . . . with sexual forecasts."

Other weird things include "Slovenly Peter," an 1860s hygiene book "about a little boy who let his fingernails grow too long." A cast of Daniel Boone's skull. A 19th-century smallpox scab. Silhouettes made by an armless woman. Nails from the part of the state capitol that collapsed in 1870. A flyer promoting an 1872 joust.

And there's James Madison's queue, or pigtail, made into a bracelet. Madison said he intended to give things to the society. Instead, Dolley was in such dire straits, she sold them, Kelly said.

The Historical Society's acquisition budget is about $50,000 annually. The library has about 8 million manuscripts, 160,000 books, 5,000 maps and more than 200,000 photographs.

After several hours in the museum, I wandered next door to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but it was under expansion and closed until May 1. So was the Confederate Memorial Chapel, an austere white-frame building constructed in 1887 in memory of the 260,000 Confederate dead.

Next I tried a number of eateries, looking for authentic Virginia cuisine such as peanut soup, but no luck. So I headed home with a copy of "Mrs. Washington's Gyngerbrede," a recipe of George's mother's that I'd picked up for free in the museum store. Back in my own kitchen, I read the fine print: "The Romans made it over 2,000 years ago."

Proof that Virginia's roots go back pretty far.

Shuman is a former Washington Post reporter and editor.

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