Museum shows area's diversity
The building houses relics that depict the region's history, from Civil War items to a moonshine still.
WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) -- Every year, millions of visitors stream into the Shenandoah Valley, drawn by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the history of places like Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
A new $20 million museum takes on the ambitious goal of showcasing the valley's diverse history and culture, from life on the home front during the Civil War to the region's agricultural heritage as a major apple producer.
The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, which opened April 3, is located in Winchester, 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., and 25 miles north of Front Royal, Va., gateway to the Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park. The museum hopes to attract some of the tourists heading to the park.
"People may want to hike one day. On another day, especially if it's raining, they may want a cultural experience," said Jennifer Esler, the museum's executive director.
The museum's collection ranges from works of art by world-renowned painters to everyday items used in rural households in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most of the museum's funding comes from a foundation established by the heirs of Winchester's founder, James Wood, an associate of George Washington.
The art collection of descendant Julian Wood Glass Jr. -- with paintings by artists like Gilbert Stuart and James McNeill Whistler and antique furniture commissioned by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III -- has its own exhibit room.
Those works alone could have been the basis for an entire museum, Esler said. But the museum's founding board wanted more than a vanity museum, and also sought to collect items and antiques unique to the valley.
Visitors can see part of a moonshine still, quilts, a copper kettle used to make apple butter, a wide collection of 18th and 19th century pottery and an exhibit on the American Indians who settled in the valley. The museum also has a gallery of miniature houses and furniture created by valley artists.
Esler said the founding board decided against focusing on one aspect of life in the valley after focus groups and audience research showed there was interest in broader themes.
"We decided to listen to what our community and what our audience was telling us," Esler said.
If there is a unifying theme, Esler said, it's that of people making a home in the valley, from the Spartan life of Colonial times, to the Civil War era when parts of Shenandoah changed hands dozens of times, to the Great Depression.
So when the museum tells its Civil War story, it focuses on the home front instead of the many battles and skirmishes.
Architect Michael Graves, who designed the museum building, said he was struck by the museum's decision to display just two guns. The guns were picked largely for their craftsmanship rather than any military significance.
"The fact that you have a museum in this territory that is not focusing on Robert E. Lee one more time is significant," Graves said.
The building Graves designed has elements of classic Georgian design that complement the Glen Burnie Historic House already on the grounds, according to Patrick Burke, principal-in-charge of the museum architecture for Graves' firm.
At the same time, the building is modern, with some distinct Graves touches, including a coursing design on the brick facade that creates a distinct "bricks-within-a-brick" pattern.
"We wanted a building that was contemporary, but respectful of tradition," Burke said.
Graves, who saw the finished building for the first time in late March, said he is always apprehensive that the craftsmanship will not match what he envisioned.
"I always think the worst, but when I saw it, it was spectacular," he said.
"The craftsmanship was better than you could ever hope for."
Inside, the building nods to the valley's agricultural history, with exhibit rooms and meeting spaces evoking the inside of a barn, with salvaged timber comprising the framework.
Richard Lewis, a spokesman with the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said the museum "is a facility that has been needed for a long time.
"The Shenandoah Valley is such an integral part of Virginia, and there has never been a facility that has sought to interpret what is important about the Shenandoah, in terms of its culture, geography and history," Lewis said.
The museum is hoping to attract about 35,000 visitors a year, with many coming from the valley itself and others coming from northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. It also should draw out-of-state visitors because it's close to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland.
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