In August 2006, the Virginia Historical Society received a generous grant from The Links Foundation, Inc., to construct a website to showcase some of the items in the society's collections that pertain to African American history.
The collections of the Virginia Historical Society include more than 8.5 million cataloged manuscripts; 200,000 books (15,000 of which are classified as rare or unique); more than 5,000 maps; 1,200 newspaper titles and 300 serials; more than 4,000 pieces of sheet music; more than 1,500 portraits and other paintings; 290,000 photographs; and in excess of 32,000 museum objects, including textiles, silver, furniture, and weaponry. Our 20,000 items of paper ephemera range from funeral notices to inauguration programs. We have been collecting museum items since 1834. Materials that relate to the African American experience in Virginia can be found in abundance in all the categories listed above.
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 former curator of African American history, Dr. Lauranett Lee. Some of them are shown in our long-term exhibition, The Story of Virginia. Nonetheless, many people remain unaware of our holdings in this area.
Although 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—letters, diaries, photographs, and printed material. 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 your hands for use in the classrooms across Virginia is a priority.
In doing this project, we chose specific items to highlight various themes in African American history and to demonstrate the breadth of our holdings. The items we have chosen for this project include letters, diaries, broadsides, government documents, telegrams, paintings, prints, museum objects, and paper ephemera.
In selecting the items to be included in Linking to Our Past, Dr. Lee developed a list of the following themes:
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.
"Linking to Our Past: Documenting the African American Experience in Virginia" has been made possible with a generous grant from The Links Foundation, Inc., through the Richmond Chapter of The Links, Inc.