Monday, September 27, 2010

The Pending Overhaul of the Richmond History Galleries

I (TP) hope that this entry will foster dialogue on the much-anticipated redesign and overhaul of the Richmond History Galleries at the Valentine Richmond History Center.  I would encourage all Richmonders who read this blog entry, both history geeks and inquiring souls who want to decipher our fair city, to stand up and sound off on the Valentine’s quest to better present Richmond’s history.  You can review the Valentine Richmond History Gallery project as well as provide valuable input via an on-line survey. Just head to the portion of the Valentine website site dedicated to this project: The history gallery wrangler is Dr. Edward Dubois Ragan to whom you can direct your comments at
I wish to thank the Valentine for the opportunity to participate in the public meeting on the overhaul of the galleries.  This July 29, 2010 public kick-off event was well attended by a cross section of the Richmond of our day. The meeting provided an excellent start to a public dialogue on what this primary showcase of our community’s history should be.
I hope that the galleries will become a sort of user-friendly Rosetta stone for Richmond history. The working title of the new history gallery exhibit is “Of Power and Place Richmond, Virginia as the Nexus of A Nation”.  This is a good overarching theme, since Richmond embodies both singular aspects of American history, while also providing a lens for viewing broad themes the history of the Nation, region and State.  To focus this overall concept the Valentine is proposing five overlapping themes.  I have listed them below with my personal critique:
Theme 1 – The Power of Place: The Falls of the James River --  This theme is absolutely spot on.  Richmond simply would not exist if it were not for the Falls of the James. The Falls are the critical dividing point between the Piedmont and Tidewater sections of Virginia’s most important river. Regardless of whether it is a point of division or convergence, almost every topic of Richmond history you can name: military, transportation, tobacco, African American, Native American, industry, recreation, etc.; revolves around this dramatic transition in the flow of the James River. The James is also the enduring and overwhelming landmark in the physical form of our community.
Theme 2 -  Production, Pathways, and Progress—These three items are all highly intertwined in our history.  Richmond, because of its strategic location at the Fall line and the power of the River, has had a long tradition of production from flour, machinery, and tobacco to advertising, art, and legal briefs.  This history encompasses an expanding layering of transportation systems: Native American Trails, turnpikes, canals, ship channels, railroads, and interstate highways. The intertwined growth of production and transportation has marked the progress (buildings, culture, amenities, opportunities, and liberties) Richmond as a tier one historic city.
Theme 3 – Hills and Bottoms: Class and Space in Richmond— The history of Richmond neighborhoods is completely intertwined with class, race, and ethnicity. The spaces, both lost and surviving, occupied by various Richmond groups reflects the place building preferences of various groups and shows how financial, ethnic, and racial segregation established their place in the real estate pecking order.  Whether it is African American cottages in Swansboro, worker rowhouses in Oregon Hill, middle class Streetcar suburbs on Northside, or the precincts of the elite on Monument Avenue, each of these neighborhoods tells a particular story of Richmonders. At the same time, Richmond as an urban space a story unto itself shaped by topography, geography, wars, floods, available materials, buildings traditions, architectural theories, and other factors.  The story of both the making of the spaces, and who they were made by and for, warrants exploration in the history galleries.   
Theme 4 – Power and Policy: From Republic to Democracy –Richmond has provided a stage set for a bold cast of figures in the history of American government: Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Jefferson Davis, Harry Byrd; as well big events or epochs in American Governance: American Independence, the formation of the Federal System, Secession, Jim Crow, and Civil rights. The story of Richmond’s cantankerous City government would warrant consideration on its own, but governance in Richmond operates on all three levels of government/ Richmond has been or is: the Confederate national Capital, a Federal judicial center, the Capital of our commonwealth, and an independent City. Weaving the themes and chronology of this multi-layered story will be no small feat and will require a bit of artistry on the part of the curators and exhibit designers.
Theme 5 – Memory and Meaning: The Old South Meets New South in Richmond – This is most interesting of all the themes. Richmond has always been looking backwards and forwards with its southern identity. Boasting old south pedigree and antiquities while at the same time trying to show itself off as a great modern city.  For example, it built the first working electric streetcar system in the United States, while rushing to commemorate the Lost Cause and codify segregationThis dichotomy is alive and well today as evidenced by first Friday Artwalks and a major modern university on one hand and parades to the Confederacy and the oldest Garden Week festivities in the U. S. on the other  Pick some good artifacts and images for this one and let it rip with a creative exhibit design and text that makes sense of the timeless irony.
I will end by simply saying that I am psyched beyond words as to where the Valentine is taking this.  The input of all good people who care about and want to understand our City is needed to make it the exhibit that Richmond so richly deserves.  Get involved, give input, and follow developments on the Examiner.

- Tyler P.

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