By Dan Verner
Echoes, the name of the gift shop at the Manassas Museum, mirrors the work of the people employed there, who capture echoes of past local voices, events and places and bring them to the public through exhibits and experiences as well as by maintaining several historic sites.
While the museum is a local endeavor, it still attracts visitors from all over the country and all over the world. Its very location involves echoes of the past. Eastern College occupied the site 1909–1918. The Swavely School, a private institution for boys, used the buildings from 1924–1935, and the Manassas State Vocational School held classes there 1941–1945. The present museum opened on the site in 1990, moving from the Old National Bank building at the corner of Main and Center Streets where it had been since 1974.
Museum Showcases Local Historical Sites and Local Involvement in World Events
The museum includes remnants of the Mayfield and Cannon Branch Civil War earthwork forts, the Manassas Industrial School/Jennie Dean Memorial, the 1909 Railroad Depot, Liberia Plantation House of 1825, and the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory.
The museum boasts a space for temporary exhibits, such as one about local involvement in World War I. A larger main exhibit area offers displays covering the period from colonial times until around the year 1910 and tracing the development of the area from woodlands to the coming of the railroad and establishment of farms and the small town that was Manassas.
Doug Horhota, programs coordinator for the City of Manassas, plans and executes a variety of activities for the community and the museum. A recent re-organization combined the museum with the Parks Department, adding to the wide variety of things to do.
“With the support of committees and organizations, such as Historic Manassas Inc., visitors can enjoy popular events, such as the Annual Railway Festival, the Fall Jubilee, and the largest fireworks display in Northern Virginia every July 4,” Horhota said.
Popular Spirits Program Provides a Spooky Good Time
Horhota’s themed tours of local historic cemeteries are extremely popular. A Spirits Program, held just after the cemetery tours are over for the year, is “spooky and fun,” he said. The program recently featured the local “Bunny Man” tale. Knowledgeable and personable, Horhota also conducts guided tours of Old Town, pointing out architectural details and noting events and people of interest.
Talented and energetic, Mary Helen Dellinger, curator for the past five years, said of her work, “One of my responsibilities is caring for the museum’s collection of about 10,000 items. I make sure that everything is stored properly and that the environment in storage and the galleries is well maintained.”
“We’ve been collecting since 1974, so we have a lot of artifacts representing many different facets of life in Manassas from the late 18th through the mid-20th centuries,” she continued. “It’s one of the finest local history collections in Virginia.”
Dellinger’s other responsibility involves running the museum’s exhibition program, which sets the schedule of upcoming exhibitions two years out.
She recalls, “The most popular temporary exhibit in my time here was ‘Protecting Manassas,’ which looked at the history of the police, fire and rescue departments within the city. The topic interested our visitors, and the exhibit was so well received that we installed its main panels at City Hall for another two years after it closed here.”
In addition, she answers research requests, gives tours or lectures, writes articles for publications, and answers any questions the public may have. “It’s never boring—that’s for sure,” she said with a laugh.
One-of-a-Kind Gifts Offered
Jane Riley, known for her kindness and outgoing nature, ran the gift shop at the museum from 2000 until her retirement in January of this year. During her tenure, Riley purchased merchandise related to the museum’s mission and changing exhibits for the store, known as one of the best of its kind in the area. The shop offers items such as framed prints and plaques, mugs, pictures, books of local interest, local Cat’s Meow Village pieces, and jams and jellies. She also developed custom products, such as the annual Christmas ornaments and hats and shirts with the Manassas name on them. “I bought things that appealed to me and also attempted to have something for everyone, from very affordable souvenirs to some higher-end gifts and jewelry,” she said.
Riley also oversaw the front desk, created reports for the director and made arrangements for popular monthly book talks. “There were so many facets to the job,” she said. “I never got bored.”
She noted that she depended on her front desk staff: “Ellie, Gayle, Nancy, and Rachel made my job so easy. They provide outstanding customer service to all our visitors and keep the displays fresh and
inviting. They truly are the face of the museum.”
Riley also managed 60 or so volunteers, who, with the gift shop staff, greet visitors, explain exhibits, recommend restaurants, note other places of interest, and answer questions about a variety of subjects. (The most common question: How do I get to Manassas Battlefield Park?)
Riley said, “Working at the museum was one of the highlights of my life. I loved the staff, volunteers, and our loyal customers, and I miss them a lot.”
Finally, Dellinger sums up the value of the museum: “Museums—like schools, libraries, public parks and the like—are assets to their communities. And this is certainly true of the Manassas Museum. We have done many, many exhibits covering a wide range of topics that we hope have caused our visitors to think about our shared past and learn something about it. But we aren’t finished, not by a long shot. There is so
much out there for us to do, and I look forward to working with this community for years to come to tell the story of the place where we live.”
And there’s truth in that statement which, like the museum, will echo through the years.
Admission to the museum is free. For hours of operation and other information, visit manassasmuseum.org.
Dan Verner (email@example.com) is the author of several books and was named “Best Writer in Prince William County (Virginia)” for 2014 and 2015 by readers in a “Best of Prince William” poll taken by Prince William Today newspaper. Find out more about him at danverner.com.