By Nancy Deville
If you’re looking to learn more about Richmond’s storied past, an often overlooked historic building in the heart of the Iron Triangle may be a good place to start.
The Richmond Museum of History, adjacent to Nevin Park, boasts a collection that includes hundreds of pictures of the Kaiser Shipyard during its World War II heyday, an extensive newspaper collection and an actual Model A Ford that rolled off Ford’s Richmond assembly line in August 1931. It also has a ship.
The Richmond Museum Association, which owns the history museum, also owns the SS Red Oak Victory, a World War II cargo ship docked at the Port of Richmond. The Red Oak was built in the Kaiser Richmond Shipyard and came home to Richmond in the 1990s. It is still under restoration, but is open five days a week for tours. The museum host special events on the ship and plans to start cruising the bay once it’s fully restored.
But while the former Carnegie library building, at 400 Nevin Avenue, is rich with history, the museum is unbeknownst to many—including people that live within a few miles of it. Museum workers say it’s a struggle just to get visitors through the door. Considering the museum is a non-profit organization, which relies solely on the support of the community through annual paid memberships and fundraising—getting people in the door is key to its success.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Melinda McCrary, Director and Curator at the Richmond Museum of History said of getting new visitors. “If I can get people to come here, I can make them proud about Richmond.”
We have a collection that allows you to see Richmond in a whole new light,” McCrary added. “There is a lot of really wonderful African American, Latino, Japanese and Chinese history here.”
McCrary hopes that the museum’s new leadership, coupled with a mix of potential new exhibits, will spur attendance. Like many local museums across the country, officials in Richmond are looking to make exhibits more interactive and participatory. There are also plans to take the museum experience into Richmond schools so students can learn about their city while studying American history. Sparking an interest among the younger generation is key, McCrary said, and expanding the collection to include high tech exhibits is crucial to igniting that spark.
“Our permanent exhibit is outdated, so I’m fundraising to start a chorological renovation,” McCrary said. “If you get kids in the museum while they’re young, they will be museum lovers for the rest of their life and they’ll also get the parents to come. This is how we are going to sustain ourselves.”
But, as Beth Javens, Executive Director of the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed out, attracting tourists to Richmond in general can be a challenge. Smaller cities are often at a disadvantage because they don’t have the capacity to bring in large events. In Richmond, a reputation for crime and attractions scattered around the city’s sprawling limits is also a drawback.
“We are working to change people’s opinions about Richmond,” Javens said. “It makes it hard for people to get out there and want to explore because there is a fear factor.”
Javens said the Richmond CVB is working to schedule tours for travel writers to show off the city’s attractions. More tourists would also help spur the city’s sagging economy.
However, Javens said it’s not all bad news. “Once people come here they become advocates for our cause,” she said. “The Richmond Museum of History is a beautiful facility, we just have to work extra hard to get people to come to Richmond and visit it because it’s really great.”
If you go: The Richmond Museum of History, at 400 Nevin Ave., is open from 1-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Cost is $2 for adults, $1 seniors or students and kids under 12 are free.
The museum continually collects artifacts and photographs from current and former Richmond residents.
For more information, call 510-235-7387 or visit www.richmondmuseumofhistory.org