By the time of his death in 1962, Collings had amassed nearly 50,000 objects, including rare Japanese war trophies from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, shoulder insignia from British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, and a chilling section of Nazi death camp fence donated by 6th Army Gen. Jacob L. Devers.

But even the passionate collector realized his hoard of treasures was jumbled.

"Too much of it is in my head," he confessed in 1954, describing the lack of records explaining his objects.

"And we've got to get it down on paper."

Transformation

Not until 1978 — following the resignation of a director accused of "improper bookkeeping" — did the city-owned museum finally hire a trained professional to address its mounting problems. And over 30 years, Quarstein not only transformed the institution into a modern museum but also expanded its reach into historical preservation.

Many reforms took place behind the scenes, but over nearly a decade they addressed such pressing issues as cataloging the massive collection, improving its care through new lighting and environmental controls and winning accreditation from the American Association of Museums.

Far more dramatic changes unfolded before the public's eye, including an addition in 1989 and the shift from a decades-long memorial impulse toward storytelling, living history and education as well as a series of new exhibits.

"We had a great collection. But it wasn't always displayed in the best way. It wasn't always focused on interpretation and education," curator Dick Hoffeditz says.

"That's how it was for many years until John came."

By 1990, the museum bristled with more than $3 million in additions and improvements, including a new theater and education wing.

It also had started venturing beyond Huntington Park to organize several historic preservation campaigns, including numerous Civil War fortifications as well as the historic houses at Endview Plantation and Lee Hall.

Once slated for development, the former Confederate headquarters at Lee Hall was painstakingly restored into a striking example of 1850s Italianate architecture. Its English basement was repurposed into a revealing exhibit space exploring the Peninsula Campaign and the epic 1862 siege lines preserved inside nearby Newport News Park.

"We raised $3.4 million to pay for the work at Lee Hall," Quarstein said. "It might not be there today had we not stepped up."

'Tough times'

In recent years, the museum has struggled with numerous reverses, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating funds in 2000 due to dramatic reductions in state cultural funding, plus persistent cuts in city support during the decade that followed.

Though Quarstein managed to blunt the impact by obtaining special appropriations of as much as $750,000 a year from the General Assembly for capital improvements, he was not replaced when he left in 2008, and a staff that once included more than a dozen full- and part-time employees has since dwindled to a mere handful.

"These are tough times for the museum," Hoffeditz explained, as he and his remaining colleagues tried to prepare for today's anniversary program.

"But we have to do the best we can with the hand we've been dealt."

Still, as recently as 2004 the museum began seeing the fruits of its successful effort to lure a nationally known collection of American military uniforms and artifacts into a partnership.