Preserving and Teaching Washington and Lee's History

To: The Washington and Lee Community
From: Rector Mike McAlevey, on behalf of the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees
Date: August 25, 2023
Re: Preserving and Teaching Washington and Lee's History

Over the last few years, the university's Board of Trustees has written to update the Washington and Lee community on matters of broad interest. Today we write with an update on the status of work the university has undertaken in recent years to preserve and teach W&L's history more effectively.  

We have approached this work and the changes we have made with a deep devotion to our core values of civility, honor, and mutual respect and to our responsibility always to serve the best interests of the university. Although some claim that the Board's actions, including renaming or renovating some buildings and relocating some artifacts like plaques and portraits to museum spaces, are an attempt to erase or hide parts of the University's history, this is not the case. We have not destroyed artifacts, nor have we removed all references to our namesakes from our campus. Rather, we have sought to portray the notable contributions of these men accurately and to expand our presentations of the university's rich and complicated history in the service of our educational mission.

Our approach is grounded in the Board's view that Washington and Lee University is an educational institution whose campus is neither a museum nor an appropriate repository for Confederate artifacts. We have outstanding museums and exhibit spaces where these artifacts are being placed in context and contribute to a fuller understanding of the history that gave rise to them.

One of the commitments the Board made two years ago was to renovate University Chapel to visually separate the original 1868 chapel auditorium, which is intended to serve as a gathering space for university events, and the 1883 annex containing the Recumbent Lee sculpture, which is intended to serve as a location for the preservation and telling of history.  We are pleased to announce today that the construction of a partition on the stage of the chapel auditorium is complete, creating two adjoined, publicly accessible spaces.  In September, University Chapel and its galleries (Chapel Galleries) will reopen to the public.


VIDEO: Click for a video of the newly renovated University Chapel and adjacent statue chamber.

Next Steps

While University Chapel reopens this fall, work on museum spaces, including the development and installation of new exhibitions within the Chapel Galleries, is ongoing.

Over the past two years, the university has already taken a number of important actions to expand the presentation of our history on campus, which include creating a new exhibit featuring the Charles Willson Peale Portrait of George Washington, updating the George Washington exhibit in Washington Hall; installing three war veteran plaques on the Memorial Gateway, and opening the "Setting the Stage" exhibit in the Chapel Galleries, which features portraits that have hung in the University Chapel auditorium over the last 150 years, including the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and the Theodore Pine portrait of Robert E. Lee.

In addition, consistent with the University's Strategic Plan, we continue to develop our forthcoming Museum of Institutional History. This Museum will expand our capacity to educate the community and the public on the many chapters of Washington and Lee University and our connections to the history of our nation.  In the fall of 2022, we formed a Museum working group composed of trustees, administrators, faculty and alumni to imagine and develop the Museum, its operations and exhibitions, and how it will relate to our other campus museum spaces. The working group has interviewed multiple architectural firms and museum consulting firms and has selected Quinn Evans and Gallagher and Associates to assist with our work. They will solicit feedback from external historians and W&L community members beginning in early 2024. We have already received significant gift commitments to support the Museum, and we are finalizing the site selection on campus so we may begin specific plans and renderings for the building and related fundraising.   

When complete, our museum spaces, including the Chapel Galleries, the Museum, and other spaces, will include exhibits about the contributions of George Washington and Robert E. Lee to the institution; the history, evolution and uses of campus buildings; artifacts, like the plaques and paintings that have been relocated from the chapel auditorium and other locations on campus; and many other topics, including notable contributions of alumni, students, staff, workers, administrators and benefactors all of whom have contributed to making Washington and Lee the esteemed university that it is today.

We look forward to welcoming the W&L community to the chapel auditorium for gatherings and events beginning this month and to sharing more of the university's history through the work ahead. We hope those of you who have not recently visited campus will return soon to see the work for yourselves and experience the vibrant and thriving institution of which we are so proud.

University Chapel

The partition on the stage of the University Chapel auditorium creates two adjoined, publicly accessible spaces.