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New Jamestown Galleries, Film Provide 21st-Century Look at 17th-Century Virginia

September 10, 2006 


WILLIAMSBURG, Va.—Presenting new historical knowledge, innovative design and a distinctive collection, exhibition galleries that opened at Jamestown Settlement October 16, 2006, chronicle the nation’s 17th-century beginnings in Virginia in the context of its Powhatan Indian, English and African cultures.  Exhibits set the stage for the founding of America’s first permanent English colony in 1607 and examine the impact of the Jamestown settlement.   

A new museum introductory film premiering in conjunction with the new Jamestown Settlement film scene - Angolan village.jpggalleries, “1607: A Nation Takes Root,” provides an overview of the first two decades of the Virginia colony and the cultures that converged there.  The film and galleries complement Jamestown Settlement’s historical interpretive program at outdoor re-creations of a Powhatan Indian village, the three English ships that arrived in Virginia in 1607 and a colonial fort.  A riverfront discovery area highlights 17th-century water travel, commerce and cultural exchange.  Jamestown Settlement is administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a Virginia state agency that also operates the Yorktown Victory Center.

A 30,000-square-foot exhibit space – double the size of previous galleries – is comprised of exhibition galleries bordered by a “great hall” spanning the length of a new 40,000-square-foot building, the culmination of a visitor services and gallery complex that has opened in phases.  The great hall provides, with illustrations and text, a chronological journey through the 1600s and is connected to a theater and special exhibition wing, opened in Spring 2004, where the new introductory film will be shown daily in a 250-seat theater.

“The new exhibits are coming along at just the right time,” said Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Senior Curator Thomas E. Davidson.  “The past 15 years has seen the uncovering of more archaeological information about early colonial Virginia than in the previous 400 years.  Documentary research has provided new understanding of the origins of the first known Africans in Virginia and the circumstances under which they were brought to the New World.”

The events and environment of 17th-century Virginia are brought to life in both the film and galleries with vivid images, the personal stories of an array of individuals, from servants to leaders, who had a role in shaping a new society, and the commentary of contemporary observers.

JS-Gallery interactive exhibit on government.jpgA selection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s collection of  objects representative of the three cultures – portraits, documents, furnishings, toys, ceremonial and decorative objects, tools and weapons – is integrated into a gallery setting that features three-dimensional life-size structures, audio and lighting effects, and small-theater presentations.  More than 500 artifacts, including 17th-century European and African objects and Virginia archaeological items, are exhibited.

The galleries are divided into three major sections.  The first introduces visitors to pre-17th-century Virginia and provides overviews of the “parent” cultures, with full-scale dioramas portraying a Powhatan Indian setting and a dwelling in Angola, homeland of the first known Africans in Virginia, and a life-size English street lined with shops and dwellings.

Exhibits also explore European overseas trade and colonization and advances in cartography, ship design and navigation that ultimately led to the formation of the Virginia Company, the English investment group that sponsored the Jamestown colony.  Within a partially re-created ship set in a waterfront environment, visitors will find interactive exhibits on navigation and cargo.  A short film, “The Crossing,” describes the 1607 voyage to Virginia.  The story of the Virginia Company is told in a re-created 17th-century manor house room lined with portraits of key figures associated with the Jamestown venture.

Cultural interaction is the primary theme of the second major section.  This area is introduced with a scale model of a 1607 Powhatan site and explores the complexity of the relationship between Virginia’s colonists and the native Powhatans, ranging from trade to conflict, and the role of cultural intermediaries such as Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan paramount chief. 

Exhibits show how the English secured a foothold in Virginia with the establishment of settlements and economic enterprises and set the course of the future with the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop.

While the first documented Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619 may eventually have won their freedom, the emergence of lifetime servitude for later African immigrants was motivated by the demand for labor to produce tobacco.  A dramatic presentation, “From Africa to Virginia,” uses three-screen movie projection and lighting with period illustrations and artifacts to chronicle African encounters with Europeans, the impact on African culture, and the development of the transatlantic slave trade. 

Powhatan, European and African technology is compared in an exhibit that displays tools for grinding corn, planting crops and cutting wood next to videos showing them in use.

The third major gallery section provides an overview of the political, social and economic development and expansion of the Virginia colony during the 17th century, while Jamestown served as its capital.  The cultivation of tobacco as the dominant economic enterprise, despite efforts to diversify, had a profound effect on the character of the colony, resulting in the emergence of an elite planter class and minimal urban development until the end of the century.

A presentation about the evolution and impact of government in 17th-Life at home.jpgcentury Virginia is shown in a theater with a façade resembling Green Spring, the mid-17th-century home of Governor William Berkeley.  Full-scale structures re-created from archaeological sites depict Indian, slave and planter dwellings in the late 17th century.  Visitors can venture inside to learn how each was furnished.  An exhibit of rare 17th-century textiles shows how clothing and accessories were linked to class and occupation.  Finally, a short audio-visual program considers the legacies of Jamestown – including cultural diversity, language and representative government – that were the seeds of the United States of America.

Throughout the galleries, touchable objects, question panels, and interactive exhibits and maps engage individuals, families and groups in learning. 

“With ample space to accommodate as many as 800 people at a time, interactive experiences, and presentation of information ranging from key points to complex detail,” said Senior Director of Museum Operations and Education Joseph A. Gutierrez, “these galleries will meet the needs of multiple audiences, from individuals looking to enrich their vacation experience to education groups seeking to fulfill standards of learning goals.” 

Exhibit settings were designed by Gallagher & Associates of Bethesda, Md., and fabricated by Design and Production of Lorton.

The Commonwealth of Virginia provided $22.3 million for permanent gallery building construction and exhibit design and fabrication as well as construction of an outdoor plaza.  Gifts and grants from individuals and organizations to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit entity that supports programs of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, have funded the growth and conservation of the museum collection and technology applications in the new galleries.  The introductory film was funded by a donation from the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion, one of the nation’s largest energy companies.