Local History Museum Coming To Terms With Edward Valentine’s Racism
Content Warning: This story contains explicit descriptions and images of racist iconography.
On a recent morning, Christina Vida opens up the locked doors to Edward Valentine’s sculpture studio. It’s a small, one-story building, detached from the main Valentine museum.
Anyone who enters the building is immediately greeted by hundreds of sculpted busts, whose eyes seem to move around the room.
“When you walk into this space, you do see shelving filled with busts of 19th Century Confederate Generals and early 20th century Richmonders,” Vida, the museum’s curator of general collections, explained.
Within the sea of plaster and marble busts, Vida points out three statues with Black subjects. One is the bust of an older man, named Uncle Henry, with exaggerated facial features. The other is a caricature of a young Black boy, with a baseball cap and oversized teeth.
“There’s also another work of a young African American boy called ‘Knowledge is Power,’” she said. “It’s a play on words because it actually depicts a young boy asleep, holding a book.”
Vida said these sculptures were some of Edward Valentine’s best-selling works. He was one of the foremost public artists of the Lost Cause, the movement to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy and write slavery out of the narrative of the Civil War.
And until recently, Valentine was celebrated for his work. Some of his popular Confederate pieces, like the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue, were displayed publicly across the city.
But after the events in Charleston, Charlottesville and the racial justice protests in Richmond last summer, The Valentine is reassessing how it talks about the museum’s namesake.
Richmond’s local history museum closed down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March. It reopened just a few months later, but the Edward Valentine studio remains closed. Museum officials say they have no plans to reopen it in its current form.
“We need to take a step back and really rethink the way this space is used,” Vida said.
Museum leadership said it can’t really be more honest about Edward Valentine without acknowledging the institution’s own complicity. Not only did the museum shy away from Valentine’s racism in the past, it has actively elevated his work.
At the same time, the museum has occasionally been ahead of its time. In 1902, it waived all ticket fees for Richmond Public Schools’ students, Black or white.
The Valentine’s director Bill Martin said the institution's story is full of these kinds of contradictions.
“It gives me hope that we can actually begin to acknowledge this ongoing dissonance within our institutions, but also to say to the community that we don’t have to be trapped with that narrative,” he said.
Martin said there’s a “total reassessment” underway, from who the museum employs and sits on its board -- to what stories are being elevated.
“There are many stories that are overrepresented, we probably have too much material from the Lost Cause, but whole parts of Richmond’s history are not reflected at all,” Martin said.
What this larger reassessment has looked like so far has been a series of community surveys and focus groups looking at how the museum talks about race in Richmond. For the studio project, The Valentine has also hired a committee of Black historians and writers.
One of those scholars is Ana Edwards, whose work has focused on Shockoe Bottom and the Devil’s Half Acre site.
Standing just a few blocks away at the 17th Street Market, Edwards said some Richmonders are now coming to terms with their own history and biases. The city’s institutions, she said, are no different.
“They all started off as institutions born into, if not the Confederacy per se, certainly the white supremacist South,” Edwards said. “That’s where they come from, that’s where their money comes from, that’s where their sensibility comes from.”
Discussions about what the studio space will end up looking like are still in early days. The Valentine isn’t planning to reopen that part of the museum until 2023.
Edwards said she’s envisioning the studio as a place for programming, not a permanent exhibition. She says she wants to keep just a few of the sculptures currently there, like “Knowledge is Power” and “Uncle Henry.”
“So that people were at least clear that they were walking into a space where we’re going to be talking about these issues,” she said.
Edwards said she hopes the studio space - stripped of most of its grand, white sculptures - can be a place for Richmonders to have the difficult conversations that they say they’re ready to have.