Gunston Hall is shutting down its archaeology program, three months after historians reveled in the discovery of skeletal remains of a slave they believe belonged to George Mason.
Officials at the plantation home south of Fort Belvoir said they saw no other recourse in the face of a $145,000 cut in state funds this year, more than 20 percent of Virginia's subsidy to the popular historical site in Northern Virginia.
"Archaeology is very interesting to people. They love it," said Gunston Hall Director Thomas A. Lainhoff, who started the archaeology program five years ago. "It came down to a very hard business decision. This was our first real tangible link to the majority of the inhabitants at Gunston Hall."
With no written record of as many as 90 slaves Mason owned, archaeologists had hoped to search for other graves near a construction site next to his manor where a worker discovered remains in July.
Similar losses are rippling through museums and cultural institutions across Virginia, casualties of $858 million in emergency cuts to state spending that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced two weeks ago to help close a shortfall that could reach $2 billion over two years. Gunston Hall and other museums had already been hit this year with 7 percent reductions in state spending and had been preparing to lose the same amount next year when the latest round of 15 percent cuts was announced.
A state that prides itself on its rich Revolutionary War and Civil War history is finding that reverence for the past is not a sacred cow, as political leaders work to spare programs for the poor and public schools.
Museums from Fairfax to Jamestown are preparing to reduce operating hours and staff and scale back expansion plans, exhibits and interpretive and research programs.
"Whenever you pull this kind of funding, there will be public-service, frontline kinds of effects," said Peter Blake, deputy secretary for the Department of Education, which supports, to varying degrees, the operating budgets of six Virginia museums and 200 nonprofit arts, music and theater groups.
History buffs also are mourning the death of a 51-year institution, Virginia Cavalcade, a quarterly magazine of state history and culture. The illustrated magazine will close its offices and dispatch its three-member staff in the Library of Virginia in Richmond this week. The final issue will be published next month.
"The thing that made Cavalcade different was it was a scholarly journal but also a glossy magazine, accessible to the public," Assistant Editor Dale Harter said. "People would complain that we were too strenuous for a popular magazine. But we prided ourselves on that."
Cavalcade operated with an annual budget of $220,000. Its editors were trying to increase its relatively small base of 6,000 subscribers (who paid $10 annually) with newsstand sales. They also were trying to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience, with articles on women's and black history and even a history of Elvis in Virginia.
"Our readership started dying out, but we still thought we were going to be around for a long time," Harter said. Over the years, the magazine tackled subjects as diverse as Brunswick stews, fox hunting, seed catalogues, George Washington and a recently restored portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that hangs in the governor's mansion in Richmond.
"Any time you lose that kind of intellectual inquiry and research, you've lost something of the fabric that tells us what's gone before us and what we may learn for the future," said Margo Carlock, executive director of the Virginia Association of Museums.
Other retrenchments will be more visible to the public. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a renowned regional museum, will close on Tuesdays in addition to Mondays, and two of its three public entrances will shut down, although no decision has been made on when that will happen. The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton will lose some of its interpretive guides.
Planning money for the coming 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement in 2007 also will be scaled back, Blake said, although it is too early to say whether the Jamestown museum will recoup enough of the cuts to avoid scaling back the event.
The state also excised about $650,000 from a $5 million grant program to private nonprofit groups that support the arts. Among them is the Wolf Trap Foundation in Vienna, which this year already lost about $750,000 of the more than $1 million in state money it had received in recent years. Wolf Trap officials have altered expansion plans and reallocated money to cover rising costs.
Gunston Hall, meanwhile, managed to raise $6,000 from its board of directors this month to keep one archaeologist on board part time for two months to wrap up research into the slave remains. Disappointed historians are convinced that there are more burial sites that would shed light on Mason, who wrote the draft of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.
"We literally passed the hat," Lainhoff said.