Exhibitions at Alexandria History Museum

The Lyceum's ongoing exhibition, Building a Community: Alexandria Past to Present, introduces Alexandria's history. It includes more than just the highlights of the City's past, providing a quick but well-rounded local history lesson. The exhibition is divided into six large sections that are split between The Lyceum's two largest galleries. The James Coldsmith Gallery is used for smaller exhibits that focus on some particular story within Alexandria's history.

Page updated on Dec 9, 2019 at 2:40 PM

Building a Community: Alexandria Past to Present

North Gallery: From Prehistory to Antebellum Alexandria

North Gallery

Clues To The Earliest Occupants examines the area's Native American residents from approximately 10,000 B.C. until English contact in the 17th century. Numerous stone tools and a very rare piece of pottery recovered from early campsites are shown along with a bow and arrow and other tools that early people used to shape their environment.

Seaport City: Enterprising Beginnings is a look at the founding and commercial growth of Alexandria as a tobacco and grain port through the 18th- and early 19th-centuries, and includes the story of the British invasion in 1814, complete with an 1,800-pound carronade (or short-range cannon) from the same period. 

Seaport City: The City Matures describes the culture and contributions of white and black Alexandrians in building the community before the Civil War.

South Gallery: From the Civil War to the Modern EraSouth Gallery

An Occupied City: The Civil War Years shows the tremendously disruptive impact of the war on Alexandria, which was seized by Union forces in May, 1861 and held for the duration.

Changing Fortunes: Reconstruction Through The Great Depression documents the community's gradual recovery from wartime occupation and the beginnings of new industrial growth through the turn of the 20th century.

The City Looks To The Future: World War II To The Present reviews the many ways in which Alexandria has changed in this century, gradually becoming a suburb within the Washington metropolitan area.

Alexandrians Fight The Great War

Now on view in the Coldsmith Gallery

The First World War . . . usually called “The Great War” until there was a second world war twenty years later . . . was unlike any other armed conflict in human history.  European armies sustained massive casualties during the first few years of the war, with extensive trench lines along the Western Front offering scant protection from terrible new weapons such as massive artillery barrages, machine guns and poison gas.  As commanders sought to break the trench deadlock, the death toll only grew; overall, there were eight and a half million deaths, and nearly three times that many wounded.

This exhibit shares some of the stories of Alexandrians during the war . . . their feelings about this nearly-incomprehensible world tragedy, their early efforts to help, and their more active participation in the American war effort after April, 1917.  Many of us have ancestors who lived through this conflict and participated in some way, and the museum staff hopes this exhibition provides a renewed interest in and appreciation for their struggles and sacrifices, as well as the new role they helped to create for the United States on the world stage.

The Payne Brothers, December 7, 1941The Five Payne Brothers: An Alexandria Family & Their Service. 

Online Exhibition

December 7, 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which officially launched the United States into the Second World War. Among the more than 16 million Americans who served in the military during that conflict were the five Payne brothers, who were born and raised in Alexandria. Fortunately, all five survived the war despite some harrowing experiences, and all five returned to Alexandria to raise families and to participate in the community in many different ways.

To commemorate this special anniversary, remembering “The Greatest Generation” and their contribution to American society during this difficult era, this online exhibition showcases a remarkable family and their tremendous service.

Past Exhibits in the Coldsmith Gallery

The James Coldsmith Gallery is used for smaller exhibits that focus on some particular story within Alexandria's history. 

A Sampling of Past Exhibitions in the Coldsmith Gallery are:

Traveling Exhibit: War of 1812: A Nation Forged by War. The panel-display, courtesy of the  U.S. Navy Museum commemorated the 200-year anniversary of the War of 1812. For visitors with smart phones, additional content was available by scanning the QR code on each panel. The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from 18 June 1812 to 17 February 1815 and was sparked by conflicting maritime policies and competing western expansion along the United States-Canadian frontier. After two and a half years the young American republic and the world’s leading superpower found themselves in a stalemate and concluded a fair and equitable peace. According to Dr. Edward Furgol, curator of the National Museum of the United States Navy, “The Navy played an essential role in preserving the strategic status quo that led to an unconditional peace with Britain in December 1814.” The favorable outcome greatly elevated the international standing of the United States and boosted the self-confidence of the American people at a critical time in their history. 

Occupied City: Life in Civil War Alexandria. 2013-2014. This exhibit examined life in an American town, seized and held by its own Federal government, following Virginia’s decision to secede from the Union in May 1861. Robert E. Lee’s hometown of Alexandria was transformed literally overnight from a prosperous, bustling commercial port into a supply, hospital, and transportation center for the Union Army. During this time, Alexandria became a destination for African Americans seeking freedom.  This exhibit explored the experiences of Alexandrians and others who lived here during this tumultuous time, through their own words, as well as period photographs and collections items.

Interactive Trail Sign ActivityTramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, November 17, 2009- June 27, 2010. This exhibition featured interactive displays and activities, with vintage uniforms, camping and hiking displays, cookie campaign items, and photos of Alexandria’s earliest Girl Scouts.

Trailer Camps provided war-time housingAlexandria At War, 1941 – 1945. It can fairly be said that the Second World War shaped the world as we know it today. The war also had great effects on the Washington area, including Alexandria. Many federal departments and programs grew tremendously, necessitating additional office space, living quarters for additional workers, and other facilities. Alexandrians shared the pain, fears, struggles, and joys of this remarkable period with most other American communities, but with the added challenges of doing so within the shadow of the nation’s capital. This exhibition gave visitors a sense of how the city’s own “greatest generation” met these challenges. 

Final of teapot, Charles A. Burnett, ca. 1830In the Neatest Most Fashionable Manner: Three Centuries of Alexandria Silver. This exhibition brought together more than 150 objects from some of America's most prominent institutions and private collections to tell the story of 27 Alexandria silversmiths. Focusing both on the craftsmen and their special forms such as military pieces and presentation work, the exhibition included a variety of flat and hollowware forms, sugar tongs, ladles, spectacles and serving pieces.  

Pier Table, James GreenThe Green Family of Cabinetmakers: An Alexandria Institution, 1817-1887. In 1817, William Green arrived in Alexandria with his wife Mary and his seven children and established a cabinetmaking business on King Street. For the next three generations, the Green family business grew to become one of Alexandria's largest enterprises, eventually serving customers in Washington, and the Shenandoah Valley. This exhibition showcased nearly three dozen Green furniture pieces.

History Makers exhibitHistory Makers offered a glimpse into the stories of a few Alexandrians who are represented in The Lyceum's collection through a variety of artifacts. Most of the people profiled in the exhibit never became famous, but learning about them helped us make a more personal connection to the past. The exhibit featured some unusual items and recent acquisitions from The Lyceum's collections, including fine silver pieces, a secretary, and a wheelbarrow -- all made in local shops -- along with an early 19th-century account book from an Alexandria merchant, and the late 18th-century meeting minutes of one of the city's first fire companies, the Sun Fire Company.   

Stoneware jar, John Swann, ca. 1819-1825Made in Alexandria, 1790-1860: An Exhibit of Decorative Arts. This early exhibition was one of the first to be shown in The Lyceum as it evolved from a Bicentennial Center into the City's history museum. It was a general overview of Alexandria-made items from silver sauce ladles and side chairs to storage jars and iron downspouts. The exhibit also included some interesting items that had been in Alexandria's first museum, established by Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge Number 22 in 1818.

Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy Ceramics in America.>