Virginia Museum of History and Culture (Richmond)

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https://www.virginiahistory.org

First published May 15, 2019.

Updated on May 18, 2022 with information about the newly renovated museum.

The Richmond-based Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC), formerly the Virginia Historical Society, 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 museum recently reopened after an extensive renovation and is now an even more beautiful museum to visit. This review has been updated to reflect the new exhibits and details.

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 cafe. Kids will love the antique car and carriage!

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Start your visit at the new 16-minute introductory film, Imagine Virginia. This film tells the story of Virginia from its earliest days to its present history and contains beautiful images and details. Best for older elementary age children and up, you can skip it if you have really young children. 

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To begin your tour, head through the sliding doors to the museum galleries. The first room to your right is the new Treasures of Virginia exhibit. This room contains some of the most extraordinary items in the museum archives, from George Washington’s diary to the Woolworth counter from the 1960 Civil Rights protests.

The hallway leads you to the main exhibits but don’t miss the History Matters gallery. It contains many items integral to Virginia’s 400+ year history, including the latest history with a COVID-19 vaccination box. Children will be amazed that they, too, really are living through history.

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Head through the art gallery to the main exhibit, The Story of Virginia. This exhibit is mostly the same as before the renovations, but I’m sad they took out my son’s two favorite interactive exhibits – hopefully they’ll be back soon! It’s still the premiere exhibit hall and shouldn’t be missed! Be sure to check out the exhibit’s web site before your visit to plan your route using the neat and helpful virtual tour tool (not yet updated for the renovation).  

The first room you enter details Virginia’s earliest history with its Native American inhabitants. Your children will marvel at the hand-hewn canoe and the painting of Pocahontas.

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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.  

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The interactive game has been replaced by an exhibit of John Marshall’s judicial robe. It’s quite a stunning piece! 

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Of course, in any telling of Virginia’s history, the difficult topic of slavery has to be addressed. The museum previously had a “choose your own adventure” game to help children understand the ramifications of slavery. This interactive exhibit has been removed and hopefully something similar will soon take its place. There are a lot of artifacts to help with the understanding of slavery and the Civil War.  

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For 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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With the recent 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, kids will be interested to see the women’s suffrage exhibit.

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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.  

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The piece of charred stone from the Pentagon is especially poignant.

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One of my favorite past temporary exhibits is still mentioned in this section. Wives of the Vietnam POWs, including Virginia native Phyllis Galanti, took on the US government to bring their husbands home. You can see Mrs. Galanti’s dress along with getting a book about the wives in the bookstore. 

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As you leave the main exhibit space, head across the foyer to the exhibit, The Lost Cause: Myths, Monuments, and Murals. This is a reinterpretation of the Hoffbauer murals which have been part of this building since its construction in 1921. The murals now contain additional information to help put them in context with the current scholarship on the subject of the Lost Cause, especially in light of the recent removal of Confederate monuments from Richmond’s streets. The exhibit also displays the statue of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, which stood in the US Capitol for 111 years. This exhibit can help your older kids with understanding the issues about slavery and the Civil War. 

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!

Enter and go back through the art gallery towards the new permanent exhibits. Younger kids will be excited at the new Commonwealth Explorers gallery which is like visiting a children’s museum! 

Head to the biggest new exhibit next – Our Commonwealth. This beautiful space tells the story of Virginia’s history based on its geographic locations, from the Tidewater to the mountains. The visuals are truly stunning and contain artifacts and videos from over 400 years of Virginia’s history.

Check the museum’s website for what temporary exhibits will be there during your visit. Through the end of 2022, the Smithsonian traveling exhibit, American Democracy, is displayed. All about the right to vote – from gaining independence from the British to women’s suffrage to Civil Rights – this exhibit has some amazing artifacts and interactive displays.  

There are additional smaller exhibits on archaeology, weapons, and familiar items which include Ralph Sampson’s size 17 sneakers! 

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Before leaving the museum, be sure to check out the gift shop for wonderful toys and books for children. Grab a snack in the new cafe and take it outside to soak in the Virginia sun.

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.    

The newly renovated Virginia Museum of History and Culture makes a wonderful stop on any Virginia vacation. Be  sure to check out its new galleries and exhibits on your next visit to Richmond!


Helpful Hints:


Books to Read:

All images are Amazon affiliate links. For additional recommendations, check out my Virginia book list on Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores and creators.

Adults/Young Adults:

Middle Grade:

Picture Books:

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