In the museum world the purest form of expressing history is through the art of presentation. A good curator can manipulate the images, semblances, presentations and narratives to define anything that she or he wants, as long as space is available and funds to pay for it. The Valentine Richmond History Center has for over a century struggled with these very issues, as it has tried to express the city’s many historic themes. Richmond has an abundance of history – 400 years worth, and enough to fill museums for miles. Located in the historic downtown of Richmond, Virginia, it is one of the most important museum entities in the South. It is clear why this museum began an ambitious $20 million dollar renovation of its facility. The first phase of the work is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2014.
In the past, the Valentine, like other museums, has had to compromise what could have been a quality experience by squeezing too much information, and too many themes, into too little space. It was not clear, to this visitor, where some of the exhibits began or ended. The net result was a blurring of themes and interpretations.
Edward Valentine, the namesake of the museum, was a famous sculptor of Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and others. Many visitors come to the musuem just to see Valentine’s original sculpture studio. Once inside the museum, however, it is not immediately clear where his studio is located. If you don’t walk outside into the garden, you might miss it completely.
How and where exhibits are displayed suggest its importance or insignificance. Three hundred years of slavery and black oppression were unfortunately jammed into a small corner area of the Valentine and overpowered by a much larger exhibit about the Richmond theatre. Richmond theatre was labeled very carefully, with appropriate and informative detail. The labels for the African Americans were poorly done and egregiously incorrect. This could be perceived as a lack of sensitivity on a very sensitive subject.
In the middle of the museum, the curator displayed Mr. Valentine’s collection of Native American relics. To the side of the display was an old photograph showing the same displays 80 years earlier in the downstairs of the museum. It was interesting, but again, it was unclear and not very well labeled. Additionally, Valentine's collection of Native American photographs had no explanation at all. Added to this was a distracting United States historical timeline which was painted on the floor and it extended throughout the museum. It provided little relationship to the exhibits; and frankly, who really wants to be looking at the floor?
If this wasn’t enough to digest, once you finished with the museum you walk directly into the Wickham house for a tour. The Wickham house, which is part of the museum entity, is a lovely Federal design mansion that was used as the first Valentine museum. The house museum is a huge educational resource for the Valentine. It was built in 1812 and its beautiful architecture has its own story to tell. To appreciate the Wickham house schedule a good hour or two of your time. It is worth the effort.
The Valentine Richmond History Center has had over one hundred years of telling the story of Richmond. It has done a good job, but it is time to change and make improvements where needed. With so much important history to present, the Valentine has to be at its best. With the much needed renovations and refinements the Valentine will meet the challenge and continue to tell the city's story for many generations.