Virginia Historical Society
Jamie Bosket (Photo courtesy Virginia Historical Society)
Formerly the Vice President for Guest Experience at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jamie O. Bosket has expanded from the estate of the nation’s first president to the entire story of Virginia, becoming the new President and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, located at 428 N. Boulevard. With a master’s degree in museum studies from George Washington University, Bosket, 33, has devoted most of his life to the study of history. He serves on the board of the Virginia Association of Museums and the board of the Alexandria Historical Society. Bosket’s appointment officially began last week and we caught up with him at the VHS to ask him about his thoughts on his new position and the advancement of the institution.
Richmond Magazine: Why did you decide to take this position at the VHS?
Jamie Bosket: Well I can say it was an easy decision, in large part because I for many years have been a very proud Virginian, but [I] also will be very honored to tell this story. It’s one of the most remarkable stories that you will find in the American experience, here in Virginia, and beyond that, [the Virginia Historical Society] is remarkable. The collection is second to none, with nearly nine million objects related to Virginia history here in the collection. ... Being one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the country, this is a rare opportunity for me to contribute to something that really matters and matters to the people of Virginia.
RM: Even though you’re 33, you have a lot of experience with Virginia’s history and museums.
Bosket: I like to think that I’m old enough to have had some great opportunities and experiences at other museums, and old enough to know that I have a lot to learn from the remarkable team here and all the contributors to the Virginia Historical Society, but also young enough to bring energy and enthusiasm and perhaps a few fresh ideas to this place that has done so well over the years.
RM: Considering your master’s degree in museum studies and past involvement with museums and historic preservation, how integrated is the subject of history into your own life?
Bosket: It is perhaps one of the most consistent themes of my life so far. When I was a student myself, the first field trip that I remember was to the local historical society in the town that I grew up in, in upstate New York. I was inspired in that moment in [the] same way that I’m trying to ... [inspire] students today. I want them to have the opportunity to have their eyes wide open and their minds to spark when they see something interesting – that changed everything for me. I from that point on, I immediately started volunteering at the historical society and [have been] either volunteering or employed by a museum now for a vast majority of my life.
RM: Coming from Mount Vernon, you actually introduced some new programs and practices there that increased visitation and interest to that site, correct?
Bosket: Yes, I’m very proud of that. I was at Mount Vernon for almost 10 years and in that time evolved into a position that was created uniquely for me, which was vice president for guest experience. I used to sum up my job to say I was the chief advocate for the Mount Vernon guest, meaning that I wanted them to be able to reach the story on a deep level that meant something to them, to come to the place and not only be engaged in history, but maybe have a little fun, maybe allow yourself a moment of patriotism or inspiration or reflection. I think that translates really directly to the story being told [at the VHS].
RM: Is there anything specific that you think worked at Mount Vernon that could be implemented at the VHS?
Bosket: Sure. We had hundreds of programs every year at Mount Vernon and part of that is we wanted something fresh, something engaging, something new, so that people would keep coming back and I think the same thing could be done [at the VHS]. In fact, some of it’s already being done and there’s some brilliant progress that has been made and [that] is continuing to be made. ... Programs [that are] fun — and I think this [current visiting] toy exhibit is a perfect example — fun never has to come at the expense of really good scholarship or really good history telling. In fact, it’s done best when those things all work together, when [multi-generations of people can come and] have conversations about their own history and be inspired by how things have changed, how it’s going to shape the future. … You see these cultural transitions in these toys, and just think what it’s going to be like when the next three decades of toys are displayed in some future exhibit and that will be something different for us. … I hope to see more of that here in the future, that we will find activities and events and programs that will make our doors fly open to the largest possible number of people both here in Richmond and throughout the entire Commonwealth and beyond.
RM: Ever since the VHS’ capital improvement campaign, the programming at the institution has really been evolving. Are you planning anything to continue this momentum?
Bosket: Absolutely. And how lucky am I, to be joining a team that has done all of this base work, and done it so well that they have built a facility that has the opportunities to do any number of things and have a collection that’s really a standout? Building on that progress will be really important and I think that more activities and more diverse programs will be the name of the game going forward, or at least we hope.
RM: I know you’ve just entered into your new position at the VHS, but have you noticed any similarities between what you were doing at Mount Vernon to your new role as President and CEO?
Bosket: I would say the first similarity, which is perhaps the one that I will rely on the most, is the passion of the team that’s here — that the people are so deeply knowledgeable of the subject [of the history of Virginia] and want to share it — and so taking all the scholarship, all the collecting that’s been done and allowing them this voice to a bigger audience is very important. That was always the hope at Mount Vernon — that you had people [who] cared so deeply and knew that this story was important for people to be informed, to be able to share this for the future, and the same goes [at the VHS].
RM: How do you feel about the “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” exhibition that opened as you entered your new position?
Bosket: I think it sends a message for what this place wants to be and is planning to be, which is a lively take on history. We often focus on the founding era and rightly so, but history is everything in the rearview mirror and it’s everything that helps us give context to our decisions now and in the future and so that gives us some pretty wide parameters on what we talk about in the story of Virginia. I think “Toys” is a great example of that, that we want to use this as an opportunity to get people here, get them talking about their own personal stories and how that relates to their life and everyone that they share it with. I mean, history is not just dates and numbers and specific events and encounters, it is something much larger than that, it’s something deeper and more powerful than us.
RM: Is there anything at the VHS that can be improved upon? Is there anything missing at the moment?
Bosket: I can’t say anything about what’s missing, but I think something that will continue to need more focus is the outward look — looking towards not only a larger audience, but a more inclusive audience and making sure that we’re providing something that’s going to engage as many Virginians as possible. There was a time in the VHS’ history where it was really just a repository. It was in its early years and it was meant for collecting and for saving and for scholarship for the few. [There has been] this incredible growth and trajectory over the past half century, [the VHS] started looking out and [has] started welcoming people and bringing in school kids and bringing in families and we’re just getting started I think on that front. There’s so much great work, but there’s so much more that we can do.
RM: On the opposite end of that spectrum, what is in place that maybe you’re most proud of or you think is really successful?
Bosket: I think [the VHS staff has] created a community of supporters and advocates that is about as strong as I’ve seen in healthy institutions and they have built a complex where you can save these treasures forever. You can’t do any of the great things I’m talking about without those particular items: having people that are going to be your champions and having the treasures that you need to tell good history.
RM: What’s next?
Bosket: Get my bearings; get involved in the activity and the running of the place right away. Start to learn from all the team members that are already here that have done all this great work and then we’re going to get started right away with two, I would say, big projects and these are at the highest possible level which is just more people through the doors. That will come in many forms [including] special events, various evening activities, special exhibitions and more regularly lively programming, so that will hopefully, and I’m confident will, bring more people in. And the second part of that is continuing to find ways to smartly manage the resources of the Virginia Historical Society. We operate without any state, federal or local funding so we’re reliant on incredibly generous donors and members. Everyone in Virginia should be a member of this institution and it’s not just to support the work that’s being done here, but this is the state history museum and we want them to be a part of it. But really establishing that financial base very comfortably and stability in the long term is a big goal of mine.