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Staunton museum dedicated to President Wilson maintains highest national recognition

Rebecca Barnabi
Photos courtesy of WWPL.

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (WWPL) achieved accreditation in 2022, continuing to maintain the highest national recognition for American museums since 1976.

Accreditation status is determined through a rigorous process at least every 10 years by the American Alliance for Museums (AAM), founded in 1906. Of an estimated 33,000 museums in the U.S., only 1,080 are accredited, and WWPL is one of only 58 accredited in Virginia.

“A lot of people don’t even know or understand that there is an accreditation process,” said Robin von Seldeneck, WWPL’s president and CEO.

She said that less than 3 percent of American museums are accredited. Accreditation gives the community, visitors and donors a sense of trust that WWPL “is doing things the right way.” For example, how a museum maintains its historic collection pieces.

Von Seldeneck said she has heard horror stories from other museums about museum board members borrowing pieces from collections. WWPL’s collection pieces remain in its buildings at all times. The museum also does not have flowers inside its buildings. Flowers attract pests which can affect collection pieces.

“It’s not only about the people coming to visit, it’s about the items,” von Seldeneck said of accreditation. The rooms in the museum and library are kept at certain temperatures throughout the year to avoid humidity ruining collection pieces.

In January 2021, von Seldeneck said that WWPL received notification to begin a one-year self-study, which resulted in nine 2-inch binders of information from staff, including five years of financials, a list of collection policies, strategic plans and exhibit plans for the future.

“It went really, really well,” von Seldeneck said of this accreditation process.

After the study’s completion, two individuals from the AAM came to evaluate WWPL. Von Seldeneck said they kept asking about the museum’s strategic plan.

“Our strategic plan looks very different than we thought it would look when we started the process,” von Seldeneck said.

The museum’s strategic plan was created in 2016, but changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The museum learned it was important to have a plan B ready for each part of its strategic plan. Now the museum’s plan is more flexible and fluid, prepared for the unexpected, such as a global pandemic. For example, before the museum would have set a goal to have 35,000 visitors in one year. Now, the strategic plan would state “our goal is to have 35,000 visitors within seven years.”

Von Seldeneck said she is proud of the museum’s strategic plan, which is usually focused on collections and exhibits. Now the museum’s plan includes discussion on being a community partner with local nonprofits and schools.

Unexpected partnerships have worked out for WWPL, which partnered with Western State Hospital during the pandemic to provide an online program for patients.

“The patients at Western State were then able to do some activities that we were able to put into an exhibit,” von Seldeneck said. The original exhibit planned for the museum was, ironically, about the 1918 flu pandemic. Instead, WWPL had an exhibit dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 featuring anonymous patients at Western State Hospital.

WWPL was closed for much of the pandemic, but was given an opportunity to expand its virtual followers. The museum had done Zoom meetings with classrooms around the world before the pandemic. Von Seldeneck said the COVID-19 pandemic also revealed to the museum the importance of focusing on meeting the needs of visitors each day, and learning how to engage the public in American history.

Von Seldeneck said the museum received grateful emails and letters, especially from seniors, who appreciated the opportunity to enjoy the museum virtually.

“It kind of reminded us of our humanity, I think,” she said of the pandemic.

During this accreditation process, von Seldeneck said the museum was commended by AAM focusing on the “full story of Wilson and [his] complexities.” The museum shows the United States’ 28th president as a human being: a father of three daughters, a man who lost a wife while president, and the president who served during the first world war.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.