On Friday, August 4, 2017, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) hosted a ceremony to officially announce that the former Old Court House Civil War Museum is being renamed the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. During the ceremony, SVBF CEO Keven M. Walker detailed the ambitious future plans for the growing museum.
He emphasized that the Old Court House area has been the center of local life for almost 300 years – Winchester was the first town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Washington helped in surveying the area and his first elected office was to represent the area in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The mission of the Museum is to tell the story, centered on the War Between the States, through the eyes of not only the soldiers involved, but also the local citizens, including women and African Americans.
Also invited up to give a few remarks were Mayor David Smith, Delegate Chris Collins, County Commissioner Chris Tierney, and U.S. Congress woman Barbara Comstock.
The Graves Family Philanthropic Leadership Award, in recognition of his philanthropy on behalf of battlefield preservation and other worthy causes, was presented to James R. Wilkens. He spoke about some of the history of Winchester: as the home of Gen. Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary War hero and an unnamed lady, who spoke to a Union soldier running through town and shot him with his own gun!
History of the Museum
The old Frederick County Court House was constructed in 1840, and was at the center of events during the Civil War when the city changed hands over 70 times and witnessed 6 major battles; the court house itself was used as a hospital, barracks, and temporary prison. In 2003, Frederick County extensively renovated the Valley landmark, which reopened as the Old Court House Civil War Museum, featuring the restored court room, remarkably preserved Civil War graffiti, and a collection of over 1,000 War Between the States artifacts.
The museum’s new name, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, reflects the wider, Valley-wide focus of the museum’s exhibits, displays and stories—and its ambitious future plans.
The sterling features of the current museum, and the hard work put in by supporters over the years, will continue to be at the core of the museum: the restored court room, the amazing Civil War graffiti, and the remarkable Ridgeway collection of Civil War artifacts will remain integral parts of the museum, supplemented by additional interpretive content. But the museum will also be entering a new era—with new exhibits and new ambitions.
New Exhibit: “One Story … A Thousand Voices”
The exhibition area in the museum will be upgraded with new and renovated exhibits, improved signage and displays, new interactive and digital tools, new lighting, new youth activities and exhibits, and a greater focus on the broader story of the War Between the States in the Shenandoah Valley—the Union, Confederate, civilian and African-American perspectives—including a new permanent exhibition: “One Story … A Thousand Voices.” The new exhibit will also include space for temporary exhibitions, including exhibits curated from the museum’s own collection, traveling exhibits, and exhibits on loan from other museums and individual collectors.
This will be a multi-year process, with renovations and upgrades completed in stages. It is estimated that it will take three years to complete the changes to the museum, but the biggest changes will be completed this coming winter.
Nicholas P. Picerno, Chairman of the SVBF’s Board of Trustees, has agreed to loan to the museum his remarkable collection of 19,000 Civil War artifacts, one of the finest private collections in the nation. Carefully curated items from his collection will be featured in rotating temporary exhibits at the museum, giving the public a chance to view artifacts that have seldom or never been on public display.
Youth Exhibits, Film Projects and Bell House
The museum will feature new youth activities and exhibits designed to engage young people. Hands-on and interactive activities will make young viewers part of the story; “History in Action” programs will combine friendly competition with fun and learning; and a “Walk in Their Footsteps” approach will focus on the experiences of individuals who lived through the Civil War era, allowing young visitors to take a trip “back through time.”
The exhibits will also include a “Rest of the Story” approach, which will encourage young people and their families to follow up their museum visit by traveling to partner sites to learn “the rest of the story.”
The museum will house new film and multi-media projects, including a now-in-development film on the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign and a landmark interactive media collaborative project with Shenandoah University and other local partners.
The nearby historic Bell House (also owned by the SVBF), another part of Winchester’s Civil War story, will become part of the extended museum experience. The Bell House will be open for tours on weekends, featuring both guided and standalone interpretation, and will be part of the museum’s wider focus on the stories of civilians and enslaved Americans.
Heritage Tourism … Seizing the Opportunity
The museum will also increase its role as a heritage tourism driver for local and region-wide historic sites. The museum will feature new videos, displays, and information designed to visit partner sites, from local sites such as the Stonewall Jackson Headquarters Museum just a short walk from the museum), the Kernstown Battlefield, and the Cedar Creek Battlefield to sites throughout the SVBF’s 8-county footprint.
With the museum (and the Bell House) combining with the SVBF’s 600-acre Third Winchester Battlefield Park (and other SVBF sites such as Star Fort), the Battlefields Foundation has a golden opportunity in Winchester and Frederick County to tell multiple sides of the Civil War, from the epic battles that raged around and in the city to the stories of civilians struggling to survive the storms of war. Combined with sites run by partners such as the Kernstown Battlefield Association, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, and the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, the potential for engaging visitors with the stories of the past and fostering heritage tourism is staggering. For the history of the Civil War in Winchester-Frederick County—and throughout the Shenandoah Valley—the future is now.
For more information, contact the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum (formerly the Old Court House Civil War Museum). Winter hours will be irregular; call before visiting. 20 N. Loudoun St, Winchester, VA 22601. (540) 740-4545. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.shenandoahatwar.org. Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters Museum. 415 North Braddock St., Winchester, VA 22601. (540) 667-5505. www. winchesterhistory.org/stonewall-jacksons-headquarters.
-By William S. Connery