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A New Exhibit at the Valentine Explores Richmond Families Through the Centuries

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The story of Virginia’s kinships begins, appropriately enough, with its first interracial couple, John Rolfe and Pocahontas.

“It’s All Relative: Richmond Families 1616-2016” allows the Valentine museum to chronicle the notion of family using a host of mediums — painting, sculpture and photography — as well as objects borrowed and from its extensive permanent collection.

Five media screens provide nonstop visuals pulled from the archives to illustrate the evolving definition of family to include work families, animal family members, fraternal societies, family businesses, gay families, church families and immigrant families.

Woman and children gather at a neighborhood oasis at Stuart and Park avenues, Feb. 2, 1967. - THE VALENTINE
  • The Valentine
  • Woman and children gather at a neighborhood oasis at Stuart and Park avenues, Feb. 2, 1967.

“They all have a family story,” says David Voelkel, the Valentine’s Elise H. Wright curator of general collections. “Some also have drama, because being in a family is hard.”

Familiar names — Branch, Ukrop, Wickham, Poe and Clay — are sprinkled throughout the galleries. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden make an appearance as the first religious family.

A staid portrait of the Valentine family manages to be even more multigenerational when the subjects are posed under portraits of their long-gone elders. A photograph of the children at the Richmond Male Orphan Society, now the Virginia Home for Boys, illustrates a large, institutionalized family. Many images of well-to-do white Virginians include black family servants, often holding the youngest children.

Objects mined from the collection help convey a sense of family history. The first few pages of the Murchie family Bible are devoted to an extensive family genealogy record documenting 400 years of relations. A silver compote given to the Valentines on the occasion of their 25th anniversary was handed down through successive generations.

But it’s not only well-known names that make up the exhibit. Everyday scenes of decades gone by provide a more intimate glimpse into local family life.

The Davis family was photographed this year. - MICHAEL K. LEASE AND KIMBERLY WOLFE
  • Michael K. Lease and Kimberly Wolfe
  • The Davis family was photographed this year.

A photograph taken at the same Stuart and Park avenue park that attracts parents and children today shows midcentury mothers chatting while surrounded by elaborate prams and carriages. One scene shows family members aboard their boat for a day of fun while another depicts a family celebrating Thanksgiving dinner. Byrd Park provides the setting for a fishing expedition with grandparent and grandchildren.

“It’s the arc of all these different stories,” Voelkel says, pointing to a 1942 photograph of Richmond-born Warren Beatty and his sister, Shirley MacLaine, as children. “It just shows how small a place Virginia is.” S

“It’s All Relative: Richmond Families 1616-2016,”runs through June 18 at the Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St. thevalentine.org.

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