Our History

Our History


The Virginia Museum of History & Culture is owned and operated by the Virginia Historical Society—a private, non-profit organization. The historical society is the oldest cultural organization in Virginia, and one of the oldest and most distinguished history organizations in the nation. For use in its state history museum and its renowned research library, the historical society cares for a collection of nearly nine million items representing the ever-evolving story of Virginia.

Early Years

The society was founded in 1831. Like most of the nation’s older historical societies, it has always been a private organization and derives virtually all its support from membership and endowment. The Virginia Historical Society elected Chief Justice John Marshall as its first president and former president James Madison its first honorary member.

During the early years, between 1831 and 1861, the society acquired valuable books, manuscripts, museum objects, and natural history specimens. From time to time, it published the texts of historic documents and the addresses delivered at its annual meetings. This was hampered, however, by having virtually no endowment and no permanent home.

War and Recovery

During the Civil War, the historical society's collections were moved from place to place, with the result that many valuable items disappeared. The society invested its entire endowment—$5,000—in Confederate bonds, so it, too, was lost.

In 1870, the Virginia Historical Society was reorganized and attempted to reassemble its scattered collections. It found temporary headquarters in the Westmoreland Club building, and embarked on a highly ambitious publications program. Eleven volumes were published in as many years, but the venture, having little financial support, brought the historical society to virtual bankruptcy.

Finding a Home

Under new leadership, in 1893 the society, for the first time, occupied its own building, 707 East Franklin Street. Today this location is known as the Lee House because it had served as the wartime home of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family. Just one month after its move, the society published the first issue of the quarterly journal, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Under the direction of William Glover Stanard, the book and manuscript collections grew dramatically, and, as a reflection of his own personal interests, began increasingly to focus on genealogy.

The growth of the collections and concerns about security led the historical society's executive committee in 1933 to approve construction of a fireproof annex to the back of the Lee House to accommodate the society’s library and museum collections.

Battle Abbey

The Virginia Historical Society acquired Battle Abbey in 1946 from the struggling Confederate Memorial Association. The cornerstone of Battle Abbey (as the building came to be known) was laid in 1912, but the opening of the building was delayed by the First World War and Charles Hoffbauers determination to repaint the murals in the Mural Gallery that he had virtually completed before the war. The building finally opened its doors in 1921.

In 1948, two years after the Virginia Historical Society acquired Battle Abbey, its president, Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, and his wife, Virginia (Chase) Steedman Weddell, were killed in a train accident. By terms of their wills, the society received the bulk of their estates together with Virginia House, their Tudor residence in Windsor Farms. With the Weddells’ generous bequests added to its endowment, the historical society for the first time in more than a century of existence, had adequate funds to carry out its scholarly mission.

John Melville Jennings became director in 1953 and immediately began introducing up-to-date cataloging techniques to the library, developing its collections, and recruiting professional staff. In 1958-59 a large addition to the back of Battle Abbey accommodated the society’s offices, library, and reading room. The historical society left the Lee House and moved into its new quarters in the spring of 1959.

A Beacon of International Scholarship

During the decades 1960–80, the Virginia Historical Society’s collections grew to a remarkable degree, the publications program became more active, and increased numbers of researchers consulted the Society's resources. Devoting itself almost entirely to the academic community, the society eventually became a beacon of international scholarship in American and southern history.

Telling Virginia’s Story

With the arrival of Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr. in 1988, the historical society began another era of growth and progress — remaining committed to scholarship but also focusing increasingly on public engagement. In June 1992, after expanding the headquarters building, the historical society reopened as the Center for Virginia History. It embraced a broader vision with additional museum galleries, a strengthened endowment, increased public programs, and an education department.

Because of the statewide nature of its comprehensive collection, the Virginia Historical Society has the unique ability to exhibit and interpret broad themes in Virginia history. A long-term exhibition entitled The Story of Virginia, An American Experience opened in October 1995 and was well received in spite of limited gallery space. The feeling that a larger exhibition was needed coincided with recognition that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), a state agency, also had a vast collection of archaeological artifacts, as well as other resources, previously unavailable to the public. A unique private-public partnership resulted between the historical society and VDHR. The Society added a 38,000-square-foot wing in 1998. Two floors were leased by the VDHR, providing state-of-the-art storage for their collections and easy access by curators, scholars, and the public. The VDHR’s staff moved into the facility while maintaining their current governing and operating independence. This joining of the VDHR’s archaeological and historic preservation functions with the Society's research library, museum, and educational functions on one “campus” is the first private-public partnership of its kind in the country.

The main floor of the 1998 wing houses the Story of Virginia exhibition. It includes many of VDHR’s archaeological holdings, expanding the story to include Virginia’s 16,000 years of prehistory. The strength of the VDHR collection—ordinary and everyday artifacts—complements the Society's, which emphasizes the exceptional and extraordinary. Together, these artifacts provide visitors with a comprehensive history of the commonwealth.

Home for History

In 2004 the board announced the 175th Anniversary Campaign: Home for History. The most visible component of this effort was another new wing completed in early 2006. This addition of 54,000 square feet includes a 500-seat auditorium, new exhibition space, a state-of-the-art classroom, and enough space to house the next twenty years’ worth of anticipated growth in collections.

These new facilities allowed the museum to expand its programs to its membership and the general public through adult learning classes, symposia, and teacher institutes. At the same time, a series of exhibitions celebrated important anniversaries in Virginia's long history and presented the story of the state in a wider context. Digital initiatives, such as Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names and HistoryConnects (a distance learning program), and the Created Equal Film Series in honor of Grady W. Powell, a film and discussion series that focuses on themes related to civil rights, human rights, and social justice in American history, reached new and diverse audiences.

In 2015, the society successfully completed the Story of Virginia Campaign. This campaign resulted in the dramatic renovation of the society's internal spaces. The creation of the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Learning Center on the ground floor offered state-of-the-art classrooms for visiting school groups and adult learning classes and a dedicated studio for the HistoryConnects initiative. The Helga Koch Gottwald Gateway to History presented visitors with an expanded and enhanced entrance to the museum. On the first floor, new museum space offered greater opportunities to mount traveling and changing exhibitions and to present a re-imagined Story of Virginia exhibition.

History Matters: The Story of Virginia for All Virginians

In 2018, following the arrival of a new President & CEO, Jamie O. Bosket, and after a year of research, community conversation, and strategic planning, the Virginia Historical Society announced a new vision and a new name for its facility on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond—The Virginia Museum of History & Culture. This historic change ushered in a new era of expanded public programming, new exhibitions, and greater activity across the Commonwealth—all focused on telling a more inclusive story to a larger and more inclusive audience.

In 2021, the VMHC announced the Commonwealth History Fund. This endowed fund provides grants annually to history organizations and projects across the Commonwealth. In the Fund’s first five years of administration, the VMHC will award up to $2,000,000, making the Commonwealth History Fund one of the largest initiatives of its kind. This opportunity to offer active investment in uplifting other history-focused organizations in Virginia and projects focused on underrepresented communities directly supports two of the VMHC’s core values of embracing partnerships and meaningfully contributing to the Commonwealth at large.

In Spring 2022, the VMHC completed the most ambitious capital improvements project in its nearly 200-year history. With funds raised as part of the History Matters capital campaign (the most successful fundraising effort in the VMHC’s history with over $60 million raised and engagement from more than 7,500 donors), this project improved more than two-thirds of the museum’s 250,000-square-foot complex. This comprehensive reimagination allowed for:

  • 50% more gallery space for long-term and changing exhibitions
  • A new immersive orientation theater with a 15-minute introductory film
  • A new interactive learning space for families
  • An updated research library with a new rare book and manuscript suite
  • A new education and community center
  • A new café, an updated museum store, and other guest amenities
  • New and renewed community and event spaces, including a new great hall, a second-floor event terrace, an outdoor event lawn, and an expanded parking lot

With these improvements and increased capacity to reach, convene, and include people from across the Commonwealth and beyond, the VMHC is better positioned than at any time in its long history to be the museum Virginia needs and Virginians deserve—a museum that welcomes and reflects all Virginians.  

Planning for America's 250th

Following several years of work by the VMHC to convene history organizations from across the Commonwealth, the Virginia General Assembly established a state commission for the planning of America’s 250th in Virginia. The General Assembly named the VMHC as the state commission’s primary non-state agency partner and dedicated a leadership role on the Commission’s Executive Committee for the VMHC President & CEO. In March 2023, in collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg and the state commission, the VMHC helped host the first national event for the 250th, bringing together representatives from history organizations across the nation on the semiquincentennial anniversary of Virginia forming its Committee of Correspondence.  

In July 2023, the VMHC announced a multi-year portfolio of commemorative activities for the 250th, including two marquee exhibitions, exciting events and programs, and a series of new scholarly publications. The VMHC also announced a major educational initiative—the creation of an innovative new civics education center to serve all Virginians—made possible by a long-time partner, the John Marshall Center for Constitutional History & Civics (JMC), becoming part of the VMHC. Founded in 1987, the JMC provides educational programs for learners of all ages on constitutional history and civics and explores the life and legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall. Through this rare merger of two beloved non-profits, the JMC’s historical archives related to Marshall became part of the VMHC’s substantial collections related to America’s founding.