For the Reston Historic Trust & Museum, survival over the past year has been all about embracing the future to explain the past.
Located at Lake Anne Plaza, the small, one-room community museum first opened its doors in 1997. It tells the story of Reston, from its beginnings in the early 1960s to today, through a variety of artifacts, informational boards, and a 1982 three-dimensional map of Reston that hangs on the right side of the room.
The museum is currently open to visitors and has been since July after closing for four months due to the pandemic.
Aside from a few social distancing stickers and minor aesthetic changes, the museum’s outward appearance hasn’t changed all that much in the past year, Reston Museum Executive Director Alex Campbell told Reston Now on a recent Tuesday morning visit.
“We used to have a couple of more chairs here,” Campbell said, pointing to a gap on the gray carpet. “That’s probably the biggest difference in terms of the interior space.”
However, the museum has transformed considerably since March 2020 in terms of how it presents its material.
“There was always this discussion of a digital presence, but it would have looked different if we had been here,” Campbell said.
She’s been leading the museum since 2018 and admits that the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for innovation.
Like many other cultural institutions, the museum shifted programs online to their YouTube page. Its website got an update to include virtual exhibits, like “Women Pioneers of Reston,” and let visitors browse collections and the archives from home.
The biggest undertaking, however, was moving the museum’s most well-known item — the 1982 map — online. The map came from the old Reston Visitor Center and was moved to the museum when it first opened.
“It’s very outdated and, obviously, updating the actual map would be incredibly difficult to do,” says Campbell. “And to a certain extent, it’s kind of nice. It’s this sorta time capsule.”
For example, the map still shows Reston Town Center surrounded by mostly green trees, and there’s no Metro station along Wiehle Avenue.
Looking to connect the past to the present, the map went digital. Visitors can now visit the webpage, click a particular point on the map, and be taken to another landing page with photos and written history.
“Those [photos] are all from our archives, they’re all historic photos of Reston,” Campbell said. “They show the change over time and a little bit more than just a point on the map.”
She says all of this allows the museum to reach more people and tell the story of Reston better, with the assistance of several grants — including $10,000 from Virginia’s tourism corporation and $4,000 from Virginia Humanities.
While visitation has been down about 50% from pre-COVID times, Campbell has noticed one encouraging trend that could stem from the museum’s increased online presence.
“Since November, 70% of our visitors have never been here before,” she said.
Campbell theorizes it could also be related to folks looking for new activities to do close to home.
Either way, the museum appears to be drawing in new people who are, in turn, learning more about Reston.
As vaccines become more plentiful, the weather warms, and some semblance of normalcy returns, the Reston Museum plans to use the lessons it has learned from the past year to move forward into the future.
A recent survey has shown that people still want an increased digital presence going forward, Campbell says, since it provides a chance to reach individuals who may not be physically close by.
“We had people in California take that survey and was like, ‘I don’t live here, but I used to live here,'” she said. “We are reaching a different group of people.”
That being said, there’s still a ton of benefit to being at the museum in person.
The weekend of May 2 was the first time that the museum had a volunteer to greet visitors and answer questions since March 2020. In addition, in-person events tend to lend themselves better to conversations between guests.
“We were losing a lot of the community connection with just chatting with people,” Campbell said.
Going forward, Campbell expects the museum to find a balance between fostering a sense of community with in-person activities and reaching more people beyond Reston with a digital presence.
This includes planning several talks into the fall that will have at least a digital component, including an event next week about Reston’s village centers. The museum is also exploring the possibility of again doing outdoor events in Lake Anne Plaza in the late summer and fall.
Either way, Campbell is proud of the lessons the museum has learned during this very difficult time.
“It was a very uncertain time, a very scary time,” says Campbell. “But [the Reston Museum] has come out of this doing all right… we’ve actually found ways to expand beyond this physical location.”