The Virginia Museum of History & Culture, formerly known as the Virginia Historical Society, is about to begin a $30 million renovation and expansion project in October — the biggest renovation project in its history.
“It’s going to look like a very different place. Nearly everything will be changed,” said Jamie Bosket, president and CEO of the museum.
Starting in October, VMHC will break ground on the new project that will change almost every single space in the current museum building, which is located at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd.
The renovation will bring a new entrance and great hall, a new café with indoor and outdoor seating, a second floor event terrace, a new immersive theater, new exhibition spaces, a new research library with a rare book and manuscript suite, and an expanded parking lot.
“Starting with our name change in 2018, we’ve been reinventing who we are and what we do,” Bosket said. When the Virginia Historical Society was established in 1831, it began largely as a research library and study facility. But it has changed over the years, especially in the last few decades, to become a museum for Virginia’s history. “It’s our goal to be a welcoming, community-centered cultural attraction — a place for all Virginians,” Bosket said.
“This is the last piece: a physical transformation of our museum complex,” he said.
Because of COVID-19
Originally planned for 2022, the museum decided to move up the renovation plans due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Currently, we’re at 30% of our regular attendance,” Bosket said. “And that’s not a sustainable model.”
Attendance is down at museums across the country due to the coronavirus, with many people avoiding enclosed public spaces to protect against transmission of the virus.
A recent national survey of the American Alliance of Museums said that as many as one in three U.S. museums may be forced to shutter because of the impacts of COVID-19.
The museum decided to move up the renovation plans to coincide with reduced attendance. The renovation will last for 18 months and should be completed in 2022.
The museum will remain open during construction in a reduced capacity.
New café, theater and exhibit
The new design of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture aims to be more welcoming, open and airy, taking inspiration from its next door neighbor, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“When you walk into the VMFA, it feels like a breath of fresh air,” Bosket said.
The new entry will create a great hall that will be “bright, open and airy and a great place for community gatherings, like our Fourth of July celebration,” Bosket said.
The renovated entrance will be located in the same place it is now: on the Sheppard Street side of the museum. But the design will raise the ceiling, adding a second story atrium and a bank of windows.
“Our building can be a little daunting from the outside. It has lots of stone and not many windows” Bosket said. The plan is to “open up” the space: adding windows and a first-floor terrace that will sweep down to an expanded outdoor green space.
The existing green lawn will be moved adjacent to the building, but it will be enlarged and remain open to the neighborhood for picnics and public use, as well as an event space.
The museum will stay roughly the same size at 250,000-square-feet, but it will have many new features including an immersive theater where the floor will be a screen and a new exhibit space called “Our Commonwealth,” meant to be a companion to “The Story of Virginia” exhibit.
The new café will be located where the museum gift shop is currently. The museum is looking for a local partner for fresh coffee, baked goods and prepared dishes. Bosket said anyone interested in partnering for the cafe can contact the museum. The museum gift shop will move to the opposite side of the new lobby.
The Virginia Museum of History & Culture is owned and operated by the Virginia Historical Society, a private, non-profit organization which does not receive government support. The museum has raised about two-thirds of the funds for the $30 million project through major donors to the museum, but it is still raising funds and in need of support.
“We see the spring of 2022 as a very big deal for us,” Bosket said. “The reopening of the museum will represent who we are and where we’re headed in a bigger way than ever before.”