Museum celebrates anniversary with new valley exhibit

Just opened in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, "Collect, Preserve, Interpret: Ten Years at the MSV" displays objects made in the Shenandoah Valley during the last three centuries. Pictured here is a jamb stove front plate made around 1773 in Frederick County and a recently conserved blanket chest made between 1800 and 1809 in Shenandoah [now Page] County by artist Johannes Spitler [1774–1837]. Photo by Rick Foster, courtesy of the MSV

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a special exhibit one year in the making, displaying historic and interesting items used in the valley during the past 2 1/2 centuries.

Collect, Preserve, Interpret: Ten Years at the MSV opened earlier this week with more than 50 uniquely selected artifacts ranging from a 1773 cast-iron jamb stove plate on display for the first time to a 2005 folk art wood carving by John L. Heatwole commemorating the opening of the museum.

“Everything is from the valley,” said A. Nicholas Powers, museum curator of collections, “and designed to represent the entire length of the valley. We would like everyone to see something that interests them from their area.”

The goal was to “collect” the best items possible and show things that were useful to everyday life at the time, said Powers, and “preserve” them to understand the culture of the time and “interpret” them by using the objects to tell significant stories of the Valley and how it has evolved.

And the stories can be interesting.

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley Curator of Collections Nick Powers examines a detail of a Winchester sideboard made by George Kreps in 1819. The sideboard will be included in a new exhibition just opened in the museum. Photo by Rick Foster, courtesy of the MSV

On display is a shiny wardrobe of walnut, yellow or white pine and tulip poplar woods built by John Vilwig, who came to Winchester before the Civil War as a furniture builder. During the Civil War he made coffins for both the Confederate and Union Armies.

The largest piece in the current exhibit is a 6-foot tall and 6-foot wide printing press operated by the Henkel family, prominent in the valley for decades as ministers, printers, doctors, lawyers.

“You name it, they did it,” said Powers. It was one of the first German printing presses in the South, printing first in German and then in English and was an important source of Lutheran materials, as the Henkels believed it was a way to preserve their culture, language and religious beliefs.

A new staging in the exhibit includes a wall hanging of an 1869 stitched sampler, often created by young women at the time to demonstrate their knowledge and skill sewing with different colors, threads and designs.

In excellent condition, it is covered by a blue curtain visitors lift to turn on a light illuminating the sampler.

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley Registrar and Collections Manager Kyle Bryner cleans a wardrobe on view in the newly opened exhibit. The wardrobe was made in Winchester between 1855 and 1875 by German cabinetmaker John Andrew Vilwig [1822-1896]. Photo by Rick Foster, courtesy of the MSV.

Dropping the curtain turns off the LED light illuminating the sampler and protects it from light, which can rob its color and composition and “is more of a worry than vandalism or theft,” said Kyle Bryner, museum registrar and collections manager who is responsible for the safe keeping of the more than 6,000 items possessed by the museum.

Bryner, who joined the museum a year ago, said her greatest fear is “lost paperwork” since the museum meticulously keeps a record that often “creates the life of an object” and chronicles its provenance.

Exhibits include furniture, ceramics, paintings, quilts, metals, folk art, a muzzle-loading pistol – all with a story to tell about life in the 200-mile-long Shenandoah Valley that roughly includes 10 Virginia counties – eight in Virginia and two in West Virginia – that stretch from the Potomac River in the north to the Roanoke Valley in the south.

Artifacts displayed come from the cities of Winchester, Strasburg, Harrisonburg and Staunton as well as the counties of Augusta, Frederick, Rockingham and Shenandoah, which has the most items exhibited.

One-third of the objects have never been displayed before and some “are old favorites taken out of storage,” said Powers.

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley Collections Department staff , from left, Curator of Collections Nick Powers, Director of Exhibitions Corwyn Garman, Exhibitions Specialist Matthew Robertson, and Registrar and Collections Manager Kyle Bryner work to install "Collect, Preserve, Interpret: Ten Years at the MSV," a new exhibition now open at the museum. Photo by Rick Foster, courtesy of the MSV.

Mounted on one wall is a collection of silver spoons made by Thomas Boyle Campbell, a Winchester silversmith, whose family carried on the tradition for decades. An 1823 miniature portrait of Campbell indicates he was a successful businessman, since such portraits were expensive at the time.

“There are families in the valley who still have pieces of silver made by the Campbells,” said Powers.

The shiny handle muzzle-loading pistol was made around 1800 by famous gunsmith Simon Lauck, whose sons carried on his profession after his death.

During the Revolutionary war, Lauck was a personal bodyguard to Daniel Morgan, who later served in Congress as Representative of Virginia, and Powers notes, “The pistol is exceedingly rare and was expensive to make. But it was used. You can see how worn the wooden handle is.”

First time displays include a miniature teakettle made between 1818 and 1821, an 1898 tobacco jar, a 1990 quilt and a 1787 Winchester tall case clock.

Two sideboards sit side by side, one from 1841 in poor condition, and another built between 1807 and 1816 and restored to its original appearance.

The contrast highlights the effort the museum makes to conserve and accurately display items as they appeared dozens of decades ago.

“My greatest thrill is conservation and taking something back to its original composition,” said Powers.

Children will also be able to enjoy the exhibit, said Corwyn Garman, director of exhibitions.

“Kids today live in a digital culture and when they see large things built by hand, they see a different world from theirs,” said Garman.

Acknowledging the digital world, QR codes will appear on two exhibit labels. Photographing them with a cell phone takes the visitors to websites to learn more about the objects displayed in an exhibit of valley tools and possibly view a video.

“It is designed to be interactive,” said Julie Armel, the museum’s deputy director of community relations.

Exhibits “give us a sense of place in understanding the community and how is has evolved over time,” said Garman. “You get a sense of pride and appreciate the craftsmanship that went into (displayed items).”

This is Garmen’s 27th exhibit and was put together with Powers and Bryner – a professional trio collaboration that meshes skills and responsibilities to birth appealing exhibits.

“We hope to bring more objects from the southern part of the valley and from the African-American community when people first settled here,” said Powers when asked how he hopes the museum’s collection will grow in the future.

Some fragile items in the exhibition will be replaced and changed every three to four months during the year-long display. The museum, which has five galleries, attracted 38,000 visitors last year.

“We hope we have something that appeals to everyone,” concluded Powers.

A series of education programs complementing the Collect, Preserve and Interpret exhibition will be held by Nick Powers, curator of the Museum of Shenandoah Valley. Dates and topics are:

  • May 7 at 5:30 p.m. – Meet the Curator for informal discussion of the exhibit.
  • May 29 at 2 p.m. – Powers will discuss his favorite objects, new acquisitions and recently conserved works.
  • June 19 at at 2-3 p.m. – Powers will launch a “Treasures from the Vault” program series discussing decorative historic documents known as fraktur currently on display or in storage.

To register, call 540-662-1473 ext. 240 or go online at Programs are free to members, $10 for non-members.