Ed. Note: Tomorrow (Wed.) Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., will receive a commendation from the General Assembly. Plus there will be a little to-do with light refreshments at the Virginia Historical Society afterward. More information on these events is at the end of this post. In January of 2004 FiftyPlus published a feature on Dr. […]
Ed. Note: Tomorrow (Wed.) Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., will receive a commendation from the General Assembly. Plus there will be a little to-do with light refreshments at the Virginia Historical Society afterward. More information on these events is at the end of this post.
In January of 2004 FiftyPlus published a feature on Dr. Bryan I penned for it. The text of the feature on Bryan, who will retire later this year, follows.
Bryan of Battle Abbey
By F.T. Rea
For about half of the twentieth century, Battle Abbey, the building at 428 North Boulevard that the Virginia Historical Society called home, stood as a visible symbol of Richmond’s reverence for its past. The look of the place never changed. Quiet Battle Abbey was a stately building with a big back yard where the neighborhood’s boys gathered to play football.
When Charles F. Bryan arrived on the scene fifteen years ago, the 173-year-old Historical Society had a staff of 35; it had no volunteers; and it was accustomed to receiving about 5,000 visitors a year. By the end of 2003 there were 101 employees on the payroll, plus some 150 volunteers. The number of annual visitors had swelled to 80,000.
“We’re in the business of helping people understand the past,” said Bryan, the Society’s president and CEO. “[At] the new VHS, we have something to share with you.”
In pursuit of that mission, Bryan has skillfully guided VHS’s growth from a low-profile private institution to a multifaceted museum of Virginia history with an outward reaching educational arm. To make that possible he has overseen fundraising campaigns to the tune of $75 million that expanded both the institution’s space – tripling the size of the headquarters building on The Boulevard – and its scope.
The Society uses its expanded gallery areas to present changing exhibitions ranging from the scholarly to the popular. Its collections include more than seven million manuscripts and 140,000 volumes. The new VHS also runs an outreaching educational program aimed at both teachers and students.
Reexamining the Civil War
Perhaps most significantly, at the VHS the page has turned for good on presenting the story of the American Civil War primarily through from the point of view of the Southerners who suffered from the bloody war and its bitter aftermath. Thus, at the VHS today, it’s the Civil War, not the War Between the States.
To a great extent, these changes have taken place on Bryan’s watch. Readers familiar with Richmond’s tendency to distrust change know that it took more than a little bit of optimism and diplomacy to have pulled them off.
So how has this remarkable transformation been accomplished?
“I guess the key to our success has been our willingness to look forthrightly at all aspects of Virginia, the good, the bad, and the ugly, alike,” said Bryan. “In February, we will open a major exhibition on the civil rights movement in Virginia, which may not please some people. On the other hand, we’re planning a major exhibition in 2007 on Robert E. Lee to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, which may not please other people.
“Both exhibitions, however, will be factually accurate and based on absolutely solid scholarship. The VHS does not seek to glorify or vilify any aspect of history, but it does try to tell the story of the past as accurately and in as balanced a way as possible.” (more…)