As a resident of central Virginia, on the third Wednesday of the month, I will be posting historical sites to see in this region, which is rich in history and contains everything from the earliest American history at Jamestown to Civil War battlefields. To begin this series, I have to start with the Richmond-based Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC), formerly the Virginia Historical Society. This museum is a wonderful first stop before touring the Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown or before your visits to the Civil War battlefields. It really puts the beginnings of Virginia, and thereby the United States, into context.
The VMHC is located in a beautiful building in the heart of the Richmond Museum district. Entering from the parking lot, you walk into an airy atrium that contains an expansive gift shop and often has featured exhibits. Upon entrance, walk upstairs and take a right to go to the exhibits.
The first room you enter starts with Virginia’s earliest history with its Native American inhabitants. Your children will marvel at the hand-hewn canoe and the painting of Pocahontas.
The next room is the heart of the exhibit, with historical artifacts ranging from colonial times to Reconstruction. Be sure to stop and examine the skull from an unfortunate settler’s encounter with the Native Americans. Kids are fascinated to look at Patrick Henry’s glasses or a document actually signed by George Washington.
The VMHC does a great job of weaving in hands-on activities to keep kids interested in learning about history. My son absolutely loves the interactive exhibit on how to determine if you would have been a Federalist or Anti-Federalist if you lived in colonial America. By answering a few questions and getting some “Huzzahs!” from either side, your child will get a better idea of the enormous task of setting up a completely new form of government that faced the Founding Fathers. My son takes the quiz multiple times on each visit and loves seeing how his answers affect the outcome.
Of course, in any telling of Virginia’s history, the difficult topic of slavery has to be addressed. The VMHC handles this hard and scary topic in a sensitive and direct way that helps children step into the shoes of those who lived in that time period. The “choose your own adventure” cabin activity in the Civil War section of the museum lets children choose to make decisions as either a male or female runaway slave. By choosing different paths to take, different people to trust, what items to take to help with the journey, they can see what tough decisions determined the fate of thousands of slaves during the Civil War. Something as simple as having enough food was a life or death decision and this interactive exhibit does an excellent job of conveying that to kids. If you happen to also have a trip to Appomattox Courthouse planned, your children will recognize the scenery of the video!
For the younger kids, don’t miss the little box in front of the cabin. This is a replica of “Henry’s Box,” made popular in a children’s picture book about a slave who shipped himself to freedom in a similar box.
If your children are a little older, they will be interested in seeing the window from the infamous Libby prison, which housed Union prisoners of war. Also be sure to see the display on Civil War battlefield medicine, including a skull from an unfortunate soldier at The Wilderness battle and the leg bone of a soldier. The display does a great job of explaining the rudimentary procedures that awaited soldiers in the battlefield hospital and why so many ended up being amputees.
As you leave the Civil War section, there are some great displays on Reconstruction and the late 1800s. Did you know that Richmond was the first city in the world with an electric streetcar system? Be sure to take your child aboard the replica trolley to hear the sounds from the early 1900s.
The last room of the exhibit focuses on recent history, including the Civil Rights movement. My son was excited to see Arthur Ashe’s tennis racquet and the photo of Barbara Johns, who was a pioneer in civil rights in Virginia. This room also tells the story of how modern Virginia came to be, through businesses like tobacco and the film industry. Artifacts that kids like to see include a bomber jacket from one of the “Bedford boys” who were instrumental in D-Day and the boots from America’s first African-American governor, Doug Wilder.
Exit the exhibit into the second floor entrance hall and cross the hall to enter the Memorial Military Murals by Charles Hoffbauer. These murals of the Civil War were recently restored to their original glory and are a must see.
Head back out into the entrance hall and take a minute to step outside to see the beautiful front of the building. This makes a great backdrop for any family pictures you would like to take!
Head back inside to see the temporary exhibits. In the spring of 2019, these exhibits included the inspiring “The League of Wives: Vietnam’s POW/MIA Advocates & Allies” exhibit. This exhibit does a wonderful job of explaining the difficult story of how the wives of the Vietnam POWs took on the US government to bring their husbands home. My son was fascinated with the story and especially with the videos included in the exhibit. He is still talking about the video of the POW who used his blinking to spell out “torture” in Morris Code.
Other temporary exhibits include “John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union,” which has the actual bladder stones removed from Justice Marshall! My son thought that was so cool!
Check the museum’s website for what temporary exhibits will be there during your visit. Some of the upcoming exhibits look fascinating and especially timely. I know our family cannot wait to see the upcoming “Founding Frenemies” exhibit about Alexander Hamilton.
Before leaving the museum, be sure to check out the gift shop for wonderful toys and books for children. The museum does a great job of curating items that are interesting and educational.
If you happen to live within driving distance, I recommend purchasing a membership to the museum. Not only do you and your family get in free to all exhibits, you will also get invitations to its educational banner lecture series and to special events.
- Cost: Members free; suggested donation: adults $10; children $5
- Recommended for: children ages 8 and up
- Tour time: allow for an hour to tour the entire museum
- Gift shop onsite
- Dining options: Many restaurants are nearby in the Museum district or The Fan. Family favorites within walking distance include Chiocca’s Deli and Belmont Pizzeria. Next door to the VMHC is the Best Cafe in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. If you are up for a walk or are planning to visit the Children’s Museum or Science Museum (see below), a must-see lunch stop in Richmond is the renowned Sally Bell’s Kitchen.
- Nearby attractions: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (includes the Richmond Visitor’s Center in the Robinson House), The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, Children’s Museum of Richmond, and Science Museum of Virginia.
Books to Read:
14 and up:
- The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home
- The Story of Virginia
- Changing History: Virginia Women through Four Centuries
- River City Secrets
- Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, the Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel
- Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
- The River Where America Began
10 and up:
- Susanna’s Midnight Ride: The Girl Who Won the Revolutionary War
- The Virginia Mysteries Series
- My America: Our Strange New Land
- Blood on the River: James Town 1607
- Colonial America: An Interactive History Adventure
- Misty of Chincoteague
- Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring
- Lafayette! (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #8)
- Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition
6 and up:
- Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad
- Virginia: What’s So Great about this State?
- Magic Treehouse #21: Civil War on a Sunday
- Richmond and the State of Virginia: Cool Stuff Every Kid Should Know
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race
Have you been to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture? What is your favorite artifact on display? Share in the comments below!