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Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

A Historic Makeover for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

By Betsy DiJulio

This article was originally published in the September-October issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.

Living history, taverns and binderies, oh my! The Colonial Williamsburg that Virginians know and love has always been all that and much more. In fact, it is the world’s largest living history museum. But as of June 14, 2020, it became a whole lot more: 65,000 thousand square feet and nearly $41.7 million more raised entirely through philanthropic support.

Since 1985, two world-class Colonial Williamsburg museums had enjoyed a far lower profile—as in underground—than they deserved. Still, from their subterranean quarters, accessed through the historic Public Hospital Museum, they had become the second most visited museums in Virginia, just after the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, boasting some 7,000 pieces from the 18th through 20th centuries, including the largest collection of paintings by Edward Hicks of The Peaceable Kingdom fame. Aldrich, known widely for her essential role in founding New York’s Museum of Modern Art, loaned and then gifted her collection to Colonial Williamsburg. Her husband, John D. Rockefeller, established the museum in 1957 as a memorial to his wife who died in 1948.

The collection has continued to grow since that time, and the Museum is recognized as the world’s oldest continually operating institution dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition and preservation of American folk art. With objects that hail from Maine to Texas and the Southwest, it is the only folk art museum in the country that is not strictly regional.

Its sister institution, The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, named for its premier benefactor and the founder of Reader’s Digest, houses some 67,000 pieces of period antiques and works of art representing the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670-1840. Colonial Williamsburg itself boasts among its supporting ranks quite a few recognizable names including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who serves as the chair of its Board of Trustees Architectural Design and Review Committee.

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