Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

RSS feed of this blog

Glad to be here: Scott Harris, James Monroe Museum’s new chief

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

The site of James Monroe's law office, pictured many decades ago.


Scott Harris, recently arrived here from the Shenandoah Valley, wrote this note in the latest edition of the newsletter for the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library (see link at end):

Director’s Letter, 2 August 2011

In the summer of 1970, my parents, being good Virginians, took me to Williamsburg and Jamestown (I don’t recall why we neglected Yorktown). Like millions of children before and after me, I rode the ox cart and put my head in the stocks in the historic area of Colonial Williamsburg, and later watched the militia drill. At what was then called Jamestown Festival Park, I sat on the cannons in the fort and scampered across the three replica ships at anchor in the river.

Later in the day, almost as an afterthought, we crossed the old wooden bridge to Jamestown Island, the original settlement location maintained by the National Park Service. The island had none of the trappings of the Festival Park—no fort, no costumed interpreters, just ruins and markers. Our tour was led by a Park ranger in the familiar gray and green uniform, topped with the obligatory “Smokey Bear” straw hat. I had my doubts about how interesting it was going to be.

The heat and humidity of Tidewater Virginia in summer was at full strength as the ranger began to paint a word picture of the struggles of the Jamestown settlers: the long ocean voyage in impossibly cramped and dirty ships; their arrival in May, 1607, with a summer as torturous as the one we were feeling soon to follow; the steadily deteriorating relations with the local Indians (only later would we refer to them as Native Americans), culminating in the dramatic tale of John Smith’s rescue by Pocahontas (also destined for revision). At the risk of sounding corny, I was captivated by this seemingly simple presentation, which was actually skillfully crafted and presented by a seasoned professional.

That trip, especially the part on Jamestown Island, showed me for the first time that the places and stories of the past could live outside of the history books, and that people actually had jobs working with them. Visits to other museums and historic sites around the Commonwealth over the next few years (Monticello, Stratford Hall, the Mariner’s Museum, New Market Battlefield, and many others) fueled my interest in a museum career, though it would take me awhile to get there.

My journey that started at Jamestown in 1970 led me to Fredericksburg to get a bachelor’s degree in history and historic preservation from Mary Washington College 13 years later, then to Williamsburg for a master’s degree in history from William and Mary and employment with Colonial Williamsburg. A short stay in Richmond with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities was followed by a longer one (12 years) in Manassas as curator and then director of the city’s museum system. I spent the first decade of this century as director of the New Market Battlefield (another stop on my childhood tour) before returning to Fredericksburg last month to direct the James Monroe Museum for my alma mater (which I have gotten used to calling the University of Mary Washington).

I am thrilled to be here, eager to get to know everyone and everything, and looking forward to the possibilities that await the museum, the university, and our community.

Thanks for the trip, Mom and Dad!


For the museum’s e-newsletter, click here.