An Interview with Keith McKay, Executive Director, The Wilton House Museum

In the run-up to E.A.T.’s inaugural event in Richmond, VA, we sat down to have a conversation with E.A.T. Foundation’s very first host, Keith McKay, Executive Director for the Wilton House Museum. Throughout the course of our conversation, we discussed the Wilton House’s noteworthy history, the present role of the Wilton House in Richmond’s community of museums and cultural hubs, and the direction in which the leadership at Wilton hope to direct the Wilton House in the coming years.

As a tangible piece of history, a living testament to the myriad eras of which the house has been a part, and an interactive experience that brings us closer to the nascent stages of America, the Wilton House is an invaluable resource. E.A.T. was thrilled to be able to kick off our Richmond adventure at such a beautiful, and important location. The complete text of our conversation with Keith can be found below.

In your own words could you give me a brief history of the Wilton House?

Yes. Wilton House is a Georgian architectural style manor house that was built in the 1750s by mainly enslaved workers for the Randolph family, who lived there for 110 years until the civil war. Then it went through a series of other owners until the Great Depression when the family at the time and the estate was foreclosed on, and then it was sold to an industrial developer. So, in the 1930s a woman’s preservation group, called the Colonial Dames purchased the house and moved it to its current location, opening it to the public 81 years ago.

They moved the house?

Yes — in sections. They hired a construction company, a local Richmond company. Herbert Claiborne was the man who was responsible for the moving and rebuilding of the house here. His company built most of the grand houses on Monument Avenue.

So, this house has seen a bunch of different phases of American history.

Yes. Yes it has. And that’s our hope moving forward as a museum — to expand that all of the eras of this house’s history are told. Right now we’re sort of emphasizing the earliest part. But the Colonial Dames have now owned this house nearly as long as the Randolph family. So we want to expand our history here.

Okay cool. Well, as we’re talking about expanding the story told of this house’s history, I suppose that also would expand the audience who would pursue their interest in this house as well. Who would you say is the ideal visitor to the Wilton House?

Someone who is interested in the past. Someone who has an appreciation of architecture and decorative arts. And also, someone sort of curious in regional history. We’re the only 18th century site besides St. John’s Church open to the public in Richmond. So, it’s also a neat opportunity to explore that historical period.

Do you have a favorite exhibition that you have brought through the museum, or that you would like to bring back?

Yes, well there have been a number. My favorites have been “Anywhere But Now,” which was our first foray into contemporary art on exhibit here. And that was a lot of fun, because it included artists like Sonya Clark, and the pieces and artists were very provocative, but still very appropriate to the rooms in which they were exhibited.

We just closed an exhibition of contemporary ceramic art by a woman ceramicist here in Virginia, Michelle Erickson, which again was a very provocative and fun exhibition. And also very contemporary, because she was dealing with contemporary issues through 18th century ceramic techniques and styles. (Here’s a link to the description of Michelle Erickson’s event at Wilton.)

And then, a personal favorite was a few years ago — we had an exhibition of women’s clothing from the 1930s that was on loan from the Valentine museum. And all the dresses were from the women who had helped save Wilton in the 1930s.

Wow, taking it full circle.

I saw on Wilton’s website that you all are collecting items for the International Refugee Committee. Does Wilton do things like that often? And could you just tell me more about why you all do that kind of work in the community, and what other forms it has taken?

Thank you for highlighting that. You know, this was a new group for us to be partnering with, and it was in response to the current political climate. We felt we wanted to do something to help others. It’s also appropriate to our site, because the Randolph family were religious and political refugees to Virginia in the 1600s. And we do this every Spring for Comforts from Home — we do this for those brave men and women serving overseas. And so this current project is an expansion of that program. We are happy to continue all of these undertakings to support our soldiers overseas, but there are also people right here in our own neighborhood in need of help.

That’s great. But, I suppose Wilton’s deep involvement in the community is fitting, seeing as you’ve been a part of our community for such a long time.

Alright, last question — Do you have a favorite room or feature of the Wilton House?

Yes, I think the Parlor is one of the most glorious and historic interiors in all of America. It’s beautifully, beautifully paneled, and we’ve just done some exciting paint analysis with Dr. Susan Buck, that has uncovered all sixteen layers of the room’s paint.

Oh yeah! I saw that when I was exploring Wilton’s website.

Yes — it should be a great lecture coming up with her on March 31st. So, what we want to do is — we’re having an exhibition featuring Dr. Buck’s paint study at Monticello, and Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, and here at Wilton. But, it would also be fun to find a way to digitally recreate all sixteen layers of coloring in that panel, so people could kind of play with it online. But, I have to say, the parlor is pretty outstanding.

Well, thank you, Keith for talking with me, and for opening up the Wilton House to E.A.T. for our event.

Thank you! It was great talking to you. And I hope you and all the guests have many more opportunities to visit Wilton.