Museum plans a new chapter for its story

Visitors take in the artifacts at the Virginia Historical Society. (Photos by Burl Rolett)

Visitors take in the artifacts at the Virginia Historical Society. (Photos by Burl Rolett)

The keeper of Virginia’s past is getting a facelift for the future.

The Virginia Historical Society has applied for up to $22.5 million worth of bonds to pay for upgrades to its long-term “Story of Virginia” exhibit, increase its classroom space and change the museum’s Boulevard entrance.

The "Story of Virginia" exhibition is 15 years old.

The “Story of Virginia” exhibition is 15 years old.

If approved, the Virginia Small Business Financing Authority would issue the bonds. The state authority has the power to issue bonds for nonprofits.

“We look at the environment now, you’re not going to find rates lower than this for probably the foreseeable future,” VHS President and chief executive Paul Levengood said. “It’s just a nice kind of coincidence of market conditions and the strategic plans we are creating.”

The planned upgrades will take place in a 48,000-square-foot section of the 200,000-square-foot museum and library at 428 N. Boulevard.

The museum redesign will upgrade the 15-year-old “Story of Virginia” exhibit, which includes a 1700s-era Conestoga wagon, a 1918 Richmond street car and a 7-foot-long musket that – legend has it – was used in 1644 to defend a Prince George County home during a battle with Native Americans.

Paul Levengood, left, and Rick Heiman (Courtesy of VHS)

Paul Levengood, left, and Rick Heiman (Courtesy of VHS)

“The ‘Story of Virginia’ has been up since 1998. Like anything else, it has served us very well but needs some refreshing and some updating and more interactivity,” Levengood said. “Any good exhibit by its nature needs to be interactive in some way – otherwise you don’t grab people.”

Also in the works is an expanded learning center. Levengood said the society plans to “move some walls around” to enlarge classrooms it has outgrown.

The nonprofit has drawn more than 30,000 visitors in 2013. It brought in $5.26 million in revenue in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. That’s down from $10.4 million the previous year.

Rick Heiman, the historical society’s chief financial officer and vice president for operations, said the upgrades are a part of a strategic plan crafted in 2009 and 2010.

“These are things we identified beginning, really, back in the depths of the recession,” he said.

VHS hasn’t set a date for when the upgrades will begin, and it hasn’t yet chosen a contractor or other vendors.

A bond hearing with the Virginia Small Business Financing Authority is scheduled for June 19.

Heiman is optimistic about the society’s chances.

“I think it’s the kind of thing the authority is very interested in approving,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever failed in any previous issue to get approved, so I’m very confident.

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