Crossroads of American History
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, did you host out-of-town guests and consider taking them for a visit to the Virginia Historical Society to see the long-term exhibition, The Story of Virginia—only to wonder whether you or they had the time it would take to get through the whole show? Did you ever try to come up with a list of special objects that you might point out to guests if you could only give them a quick tour through the show? My list would include the Céloron plaque that laid French claim to the Ohio Valley, a George Washington letter, the covered wagon, the handwritten sheet music for “Dixie,” the street car, George C. Marshall’s gear from World War I, the jacket that Ronald Reagan wore in key scenes in the film about VMI (Brother Rat).
We’re making it easier for you in the future. In an entirely reconfigured Story of Virginia, scheduled to open in summer 2015, you will encounter a “crossroads” section that will whisk you and your guests through the best of Virginia history in under an hour. What’s a crossroads section? I will explain.
In addition to presenting a traditional chronology of Virginia history through the centuries, the new Story of Virginia will offer as well a stimulating display entitled “Virginians at the Crossroads of American History.” This entity will unfold separately on a low platform and stand apart visually as a unit. The platform will literally be a crossroads, two long paths that traverse much of the exhibition’s space and intersect near its center. Ten to fifteen episodes will be featured on the platform—moments of decision, turning points in history. The visitor will see compelling evidence that at times Virginians have stepped up on to the crossroads of American history to participate in decisions that changed its course and sometimes changed even the course of world history as well.
Here are just a few of the crossroads episodes that we will present.
At the start, visitors will see two gold buttons (once believed to have been actually worn by Pocahontas) and a remarkable portrait engraving of her that was drawn from life in London in 1616 (by Simon van de Passe). The label will explain that in 1607, the Powhatan confederation was at a crossroads—what should be done with the English settlers who had landed in the confederation’s territory at what the newcomers called Jamestown? Largely through the efforts of Pocahontas, a daughter of chief Powhatan, peace was established and maintained between the two peoples for as long as she lived. As a result of her decision, a struggling English colony in America became permanently established.
At another crossroads, visitors will see a reduced bronze version (a maquette) of a monumental sculpture erected at Fort Lewis in Washington state to enshrine Captain Meriwether Lewis and His Dog Seaman at the endpoint of their cross-country exploration. Beside the maquette is an 1825 hand-colored French map of “Ancienne Louisiane.” The label will explain that in 1802, when Spain ceded control of the Mississippi River to Napoleon, President Thomas Jefferson saw a threat to American security and a block to expansion and what he viewed as the destiny of the nation. He was at a crossroads: should he assume authority not granted to him by the Constitution? He did, by sending James Monroe to Paris to purchase New Orleans and as much of the Mississippi Valley as possible, while he commissioned his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to explore the land. He made what would rank in American history as both the boldest projection of executive authority and the most consequential executive decision when he doubled the size of the American republic and set the course of the nation for the entire century.
Farther down the platform, the visitor’s attention will be directed to a small pen and holder that was used by Valentine Southall, one of the signers of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession, along with a broadside of 1861 that reproduces the text of the Ordinance to Repeal the Ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the state of Virginia. The label will explain that earlier in the year, after several Lower South states seceded from the union, President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to put down their rebellion placed Virginia’s elected officials at a crossroads: should they send militia units to fight fellow slaveholding southerners or join those states in secession. Their choice of the latter held enormous ramifications.
And so the crossroads episodes will continue on a chronological course, parallel to the rest of the show, and they will lead the viewer through the twentieth century to the present. We are still working on this concept, with final decisions yet to be made. But already it is clear that with the crossroads section, VHS visitors will be presented a powerful sampling of both the best objects and the best ideas that compose Virginia and American history.
William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.