Looking Back at the WV State Museum


In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair had an exhibition presented by the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society. John P. Hale, a Charlestonian, and Virgil Lewis hailing from Mason county were instrumental in the formation of the society and went on to help with the creation of the first State Museum in 1894. Hale, a physician, and Lewis, the first director of the Bureau of Archives and History, contributed the bulk of the items from the exhibition to the newly formed museum. April 3, 1894, saw Gov. William MacCorkle cut the ribbon and declare the new WV State Museum open to the public.

The museum has traveled around Charleston before settling where it is today, in the Culture Center on the State Capitol grounds. First located in the state capitol building on Capital Street in downtown Charleston, it moved to the Capitol Annex in 1905. Fortunately, the collection had found it’s home in the Annex, or all would have been lost in the Capitol fire in 1921. The items moved to our current Capitol in 1932, and finally to the Culture Center home in 1976.

The mission statement of the museum encapsulates the purpose of the museum for state residents and others: The West Virginia State Museum is dedicated to inspiring, educating and enriching the lives of the public by instilling a deeper understanding and sense of pride through the collection, preservation, and exhibition of diverse cultural and historic traditions, focusing on every aspect of West Virginia history, culture, art, paleontology, archaeology, and geology from all geographic regions – representing the people, land, and industries.

The collection of the state museum was placed on exhibit in the basement. Open to visitors year-round, the museum was a popular attraction. School children were frequent visitors, as entire classrooms made the trip to the Capitol each year. Although most were undoubtedly uninterested in old photographs and relics decades before their time, one exhibit remained a favorite. Regardless of the vast assortment of historical ephemera, the fully-dressed fleas captured the attention of children. Circus fleas were prevalent as far back as the early 1800s, performing literally under a magnifying glass for onlookers. The two fleas, Emmiline and Alexander, began their career in a New York flea circus in the late 1800s and remain among the most talked-about exhibits at the museum.

While the Capitol basement museum proved adequate for the museum’s needs for many years, it became crowded and lacked space to showcase the treasures within appropriately. On July 11, 1976, the West Virginia Science and Culture Center opened, giving a new spacious, climate-controlled home to the state museum artifacts. Of the many items on display, there are things to see for any area of a visitor’s interest. The museum covers the states cultural, natural, and industrial history.

Displays rotate periodically of the more than 60,000 artifacts collected by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Some of these include: a telescope used by George Washington to survey tracts of land in the state; Elkinsia Polymorpha, a plant fossil found in Randolph County that is recognized as the oldest seed-bearing plant in North America; a small-scale version of the Philippi covered bridge; a coal mine company store; a 35-star flag flown over the cemetery at Gettysburg during Lincoln’s address; and a soda shop that features original materials taken from the Scott Brothers Drug Store in downtown Charleston.

The WV State Museum is a must-see treasure of the state. Visit www.wvculture.org for information on their hours.

Next month, Looking Back takes a stroll through the Arcade.

Squires’ new book Look Back at Charleston is a compilation of 24 essays and color photos from her column and is available on Amazon. Visit www.mlynne.com.

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