The sporting life

By Posted on Apr 25 2020 | By

Note: This article was published before COVID-19.

National Sporting Library & Museum dedicated to bucolic pursuits

The first thing you are drawn to is the life-size statue of a riderless horse in military saddlery, head hung low in exhaustion, eyes closed.

It stands majestically in front of a Middleburg library and museum and is a unique and intriguing study in contemplation.

It also represents in a broader sense what is at the heart of Fauquier County and the Nation: the sporting life.

The statue beckons the visitor like the North Star. It’s titled War Horse and is the first piece of art you’ll encounter before entering the internationally known facility.

Awaiting your visit are 21,00 other items of art, statuary, rare books, and more.

The statue was commissioned by the late Paul Mellon and represents the 1.5 million horses and mules who gave their lives during the Civil War for both the Blue and Gray; animals that are inherently and ironically peace-loving.

The bronze work springs from the hands of one of Britain’s leading animal sculptors, Tessa Pullan. The forlorn equine compels one to stop and gaze at the level of detail and poignancy that emanates from the art.

From the reins hanging from its head and lying on the ground, to a scabbarded sword on its saddle and its right rear hoof barely touching the ground, it’s emblematic of what you are about to experience.

Books, sculpture, and art that makes one pause reflect and admire.
Welcome to the National Sporting Library Museum.

The NSLM was founded in 1954 as the National Sporting Library by George L. Ohrstrom, Sr., and Alexander Mackay-Smith and sits on six acres in the village of Middleburg.

Ohrstrom was an avid fox hunter, president of the Orange County Hunt, and a breeder of thoroughbred and steeplechase horses.

Mackay-Smith was an author, horseman, and visionary leader who passionately promoted equestrian sports during the last century.

Together the two men gifted future generations the joy of all things field, forest, and stream.

Executive director’s dream
Today the museum and library are under the leadership of Elizabeth Von Hassell.

Von Hassell could be considered to the manor born for the position, a description she would quickly demur.

She was born in Winchester, raised in Berkley Springs, West Virginia, and from the age of 16, attended schools in Virginia.  Later she purchased a small farm in Clarke County with her family.

Field sports have always been part of her life. She grew up horseback riding, fox hunting, fishing, and shooting with her father and held an appreciation for the art and literature associated with those sports.

“I have the ultimate dream job. It is an honor for me to work with our team and board of directors here at the museum,” she says. “I’ve always thought it a privilege to live in the Piedmont.

I have a deep-rooted desire to protect our countryside because it’s essential to the viability of the sports we represent at the museum.”
Von Hassell’s resume reflects what she brings to the organization she leads.

After graduating from college, she worked in a variety of jobs unknowingly leading to her dream position.

Marketing, strategic planning, public relations, and similar positions in the corporate world of Madison Avenue, including a stint with a major pharmaceutical firm, led her to accept a job close to her heart: director of development at James Madison’s historic home, Montpelier.

The home sits on 2,650 pristine acres but like all land today was exposed to potential commercial and residential development.

“I worked diligently in making sure a large portion of that estate would be placed in a conservation easement. The effort was successful. Today, 2,000 of those acres are protected from growth in perpetuity,” says Von Hassell.

The portfolio
NSLM comprises two buildings on its property. One is a fieldstone country home that houses an extensive library. The second is a series of attractively connected brick buildings where the museum is located.

The grounds are surrounded by mature trees and landscaping creating a university campus-like setting as you walk the grounds.

In addition to the War Horse statue, other outdoor sculptures such as a fox, horse, and colt set the stage for what the visitor will experience within.

The library is unique in that it contains the largest collection of traditional sporting literature in the world. There are over 7,000 volumes of rare books dating from as early as the 1500s.

Subjects run the gambit from angling, horsemanship, shooting, wildlife, coaching, and numerous other subjects related to the out of doors. There is even a volume on dueling.

Unlike conventional libraries, scholars and interested visitors can arrange to peruse the collection but cannot take the volumes off-site given the rarity of the books and their often-priceless value.

The general public can arrange special tours in advance.
The museum contains over 800 pieces of artwork, statuary, and decorative art.

“It is without a doubt an absolute gem of a collection,” observes Von Hassell. Be prepared to spend some time as you walk through the museum. The collection draws a visitor in, almost demanding contemplation, as many scenes are of outdoor life in action.

Typical libraries and museums present collections to be viewed in a hushed environment. While this is true of the NSLM, it is just one of its many strengths.

It has an active calendar that seeks to make its programs an integral part of the local community.

Numerous events such as art classes, presentations, lectures, live concerts, and involvement with local schools place an emphasis on learning through participation.

Recently internationally known artist Andre Potter held a standing room only discussion on his new art book. He will return soon to teach a masters drawing class. “He is one of the absolute best contemporary artists alive today,” says Von Hassell.

Every Wednesday a gallery talk is held showcasing traveling exhibitions, new acquisitions, or permanent collection pieces. Each talk is original and not repeated. Reservations are not required and admission is free.

Recent exhibitions included a presentation by artist Paul Brown on pencil, pen and brush art, a roundtable discussion on African-American jockeys, a glass sculpture class held by artist Joan Danziger, and an equine sculpture workshop
Increasing membership is an important goal for the organization. Student memberships are $25 and adults $50, making it very affordable compared to other museums. “I think the cost is reflective of how committed we are to the local community.”

The NSLM is opened Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and youth. Children under 12 are free. Library admission is also free.

To make the facility as widely available as possible, SNAP and EBT cardholders are admitted at no charge.
After a tour of the library and museum consider shopping and dining in Middleburg
The village dates to 1787 and has many upscale shops and restaurants that will round out your day’s activities.

For an in-depth look at the programs, exhibitions and classes available at the National Sporting Library and Museum visit its website at http://www.nationalsporting.org/

Published in the Fall 2019 edition of inFauquier magazine.

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