Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation trustees, while offering praise for the museums’ current programs and operations, discussed ways to propel them forward and broaden their message to more diverse audiences.
Trustees Sue Gerdelman and Chickahominy Tribe Chief Stephen Adkins praised the living history at both of the foundation’s museums — Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown — both of which saw attendance boosts this year. Other trustees echoed their comments.
“I believe we try to tell the story,” Adkins said. “I believe there’s a deliberate effort within this foundation to tell history, to present the facts. I think … we’re not going to shy away from history no matter what it looks like.”
However, Adkins and other trustees said the museums are missing key demographics in programming, including African Americans and other minority groups.
“I think we need to create a product that engages the various demographics of the Commonwealth of Virginia in a way that they can identify with what they’re seeing,” Adkins said.
He believes the foundation should initiate a focus group to reflect the demographics of Virginia and answer the questions: Why should people come to Jamestown? Why should people come to Yorktown?
He said people of different backgrounds need to know what they’re going to experience, with the foundation getting feedback from them to determine if the museum is relevant to their background.
“It’s not just about telling our story, but it’s the relevance of our story,” Gerdelman said.
Peter Armstrong, the foundation’s senior director of museum operations and education, said it would be wrong to think a history museum is not involved with what’s happening in today’s society.
“When you’ve only got to look at the issues of the Confederate statues, now, 10 years ago, they’re a historical monument that stands in the middle of the street,” Armstrong said. “All of a sudden they have a real political meaning to them.”
New trustee Cassandra Newby-Alexander said the foundation is positioned to tell a relevant 21st-century story, but that the story needs to be updated to incorporate current research and include the story of immigration during the time of the American Revolution and connecting that to the present day.
“I think that 21st-century story needs to change and be updated based on what scholars have uncovered, and that’s a very interesting and complicated and messy story that millennials want to hear, and the nation wants to hear,” Newby-Alexander said.
Trustee members also said in their discussion that the foundation needs to expand its donor base and seek out younger volunteers.
Armstrong said he was impressed with the board’s imagination when laying out the museums’ future possibilities.
““It wasn’t, OK, we’ve built Yorktown, we’re now doing Jamestown, we can all sit back on our laurels,” Armstrong said. ““It was: What are the next steps? How can we take the museum even further? How can it become internationally recognized? How can we build up our academic status? How can we do those things? And you know you have their backing.”