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By Linda T. Kennedy
If time travel were possible in Northern Virginia, one of the best places to come close to it would be visiting the Manassas Museum, which reopened its doors last fall after an extensive renovation. While you’ll step into a building that, from the exterior, has a mid-century modern vibe, inside, you’ll find a wide range of artifacts that will take you back to the city’s origins. From prehistoric stone tools and points used by Native
peoples to signs carried during a social justice protest during a recent rally last year, you’ll experience Manassas’s place in Virginia’s, and the country’s, history.
“Our collection spans all of our history,” says Mary Dellinger, curator, Museum and Historic Sites, City of Manassas. “We have Civil War collections, textiles, farming equipment, old business machines, toys, memorabilia, books, photos, and all manner of archival materials.”
However, the exhibits you enjoyed at the prior museum now exist only in the collective memories of those who visited before the renovation. Dellinger says there is no trace of the old exhibits — most of the spaces in the museum were completely renovated.
“We have a long-term exhibition gallery and temporary exhibition gallery, a new collection spotlight area, and a new exhibit that is a timeline look at the Manassas area history,” explains Dellinger, who has a vast understanding of the entire Manassas area. She cares for the museum’s collections and serves as the curator of seven historic properties owned and operated by the City of Manassas.
“The beautiful new Mae Merchant Hall features floor-to-ceiling glass windows that look out on the museum lawn and outdoor courtyard space,” she says. “This hall can be used for exhibits, programs, meetings, and special events.”
You’ll also find the new JoAnne Bagnerise classroom space that holds the museum’s new genealogy center and can function as a meeting room. The building also includes administrative and public spaces, staff offices, online collections storage facilities, a family restroom, and a nursing room for mothers. But also,
some of the interior extends outward — a new-tiered courtyard space functions as an indoor/outdoor space as it opens into the museum’s new Merchant Hall.
An Exhibit Like None Other
In the new exhibits, you’ll still find some traces of artifacts held in the old museum, including one of the first pieces donated to the Manassas Museum when it was founded in 1974: a Native American stone tool.
“We are very excited about the Native Legacy exhibition, created in partnership with the Patawomeck Tribe of Stafford County,” says Dellinger. “This display is an expansion of an exhibit we did years ago on the Native peoples that lived in this area before European contact.”
The Native Legacy exhibition was partly supported by funding from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture’s Commonwealth History Fund, supported by Dominion Energy. Dellinger says the exhibit includes a reproduction longhouse where visitors can enter and touch reproduction objects, animal hides, and other pieces related to native culture while being guided to their significance with text and graphic panels.
Also, Dellinger says visitors will find a good collection of artifacts representing the history of the Manassas African-American community. Then, visitors can continue their journey into Manassas’s Black history just a half mile from the museum by visiting the historic First Baptist Church, built by Manassas African Americans in the years immediately following the Civil War.
The Don’t-Miss Exhibit This Winter
If you only have an hour to spend in the new museum, Dellinger says you should still be able to visit and see both new gallery spaces, provided you spend your time wisely. “However, if you had to pick one thing right now, I would recommend the new, temporary exhibition 50 Years in 50 Objects,” said Dellinger. “The community created this exhibit to celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary.”
In the exhibit, you’ll find a list of five objects for each year the museum has been collecting (1974-2023).
“With these lists in hand, we turned to the community, asking people to become guest curators,” said Dellinger. “Anyone who wanted to participate picked one year to be responsible for, and I sent them their list of five things for that year.”
The guest curator picked one thing from the list, did the research, and wrote the label for the item. Visitors will find the names of the guest curators listed next to the objects for each year.
“All the years were taken very quickly, and all the guest curators seemed to enjoy themselves,” said Dellinger. “Kids and adults participated, and the results are amazing!”
Beyond guest curators, many members of the Manassas community participated in developing what the new Manassas Museum is today, down to residents being provided the opportunity to vote on the building design.
GWWO Architects incorporated the community’s feedback to create “a community center, providing space for education, conversation, and connection that instills regional pride,” according to the GWWO website.
Ultimately, GWWO designed the expansion “to attract new visitors to learn the story of Manassas and provide opportunities to educate, unite, and grow the community.” Now, says Dellinger, those goals are being accomplished with the finished museum.
“We held many community conversations about the building design — what did the community want to see and how did they want the building to work,” said Dellinger.
Dellinger says the museum staff will be developing activities and programs for patrons throughout the year. When you visit this winter, you may see school groups strolling by; most of the winter programming focuses heavily on education enrichment programs. However, more programs and activities for the public will begin mid-spring. Watch the Manassas website for announcements of upcoming programs in 2024.
Linda T. Kennedy is a contributing writer for Prince William Living.