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Chosen Artifacts

A new exhibit at the recently revamped Valentine museum explores what’s made Richmond click.



For many folks, Sunday, Dec. 14, should offer a splendid time to discover the colorful and richly textured exhibition “This Is Richmond, Virginia” at the Valentine, the intriguing repository of all things Richmond on East Clay Street in Court End. Many of the cultural landmarks in this downtown quarter will be gussied up in holiday garb and suspending admission for the annual Court End Christmas tour.

The Valentine unveiled the fruits of a dramatic interior transformation in October, accomplished within the remarkably short span of a year. The centerpiece of the new public spaces is a principal exhibition, “This Is Richmond, Virginia.” It offers a refreshing, if somewhat challenging, approach to the region’s rich history.

Rather than a chronological march through time, say “In the beginning were the Powhatan Native Americans who greeted the English who soon thereafter brought enslaved Africans …” the Valentine’s considerable brain reserve took a different approach. It poses five broad questions: Why the fall line? Where do we live? What do we produce? Who has a voice? And what do we believe or value?

Answers, clues perhaps, are found by examining the artifacts or documents that are drawn from the museum’s collection of 1.7 million items, photographs and documents. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed with interactive devices and other technological hooey. The curators and designers have entrusted the carefully selected objects to resonate across time and either shout at you, or whisper in your ear.

Yes, there’s some flash such as the dented fender from Rusty Wallace’s NASCAR vehicle and a Duke of Dogma costume once worn by a member of the Gwar rock group (these pieces are cleverly interwoven into the “what do we believe or value” section). But if you approach the exhibit by relating one object to another, interesting discoveries will be made, even if it means jumping decades or centuries, changes in tastes, or shifts in politics.

I’m transfixed, for instance, by the juxtaposition of two unrelated 19th-century oil paintings not all that different in subject matter, style and size.

“Rocketts Landing,” an 1860 work by George Bacon Woods, depicts the Richmond riverfront looking eastward from a nearby hilltop. The wharves and surrounding structures are eerily calm, on a Sunday perhaps. But the piece strikes me as chilling because a year or so later, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the river would be mined, battleships at dock and Richmond the focus of Union assault.

Near this setting hangs another James River scene, “Waiting for the Boat,” an 1880 painting by John Adams Elder. Two smiling black boys are fishing. An older laborer naps on a pile of flour sacks. Workers toil in the background. A central figure, a lady in mourning attire, is comforted by a sympathetic companion. There’s little to suggest that much has changed since the 1860 scene at Rocketts: 800,000 Americans had died. Despite the carnage, Elder paints a visual poem to the lost cause: noble widow, carefree blacks and a bustling economy. In reality, the end game isn’t so rosy, as recent events in Missouri remind us.

This is the power of well-chosen artifacts. They reveal truths about the period in which they were created, and sometimes different truths when viewed through the lens of time.

Connections, contrasts, thrills, sadness, delight and humor all are part of the exhibit, set on a wooden floor that’s been painted with an 1856 map of the city by Richmond artist Nancy Beck. In the show, many local patriots of the late 18th century are featured — Washington, Jefferson, Henry and Marshall — in the “what do we believe or value” section. But so are those who challenged the status quo of later times. These include Maggie Lena Walker, John Mitchell, Arthur Ashe, federal judge Robert Merhige and others. With race is an underlying theme, more recent arrivals at the table, Asians and Latinos, also are represented.

Valentine curators David Voelkel and Meg Hughes, director William Martin and his staff, and the Richmond-based exhibit design firm Riggs Ward have done a masterful job in creating a rubric cube of an experience: Make your own connections, your own discoveries, guided by the artifacts.

One suggestion: A wall panel or printed flyers that provide an abbreviated timeline of the region’s long history would be helpful for museum visitors to cross-reference while they navigate the exhibit. While the overall approach is highbrow and respects the intelligence of visitors, a bit more frame of historical reference would be helpful.

In the coming months other exhibits will begin to populate other Valentine gallery spaces. Now is an excellent time to visit this ambitious exhibit that illuminates what has, and continues to make, the community click. S

The Valentine is at 1015 E. Clay St. 649-0711.

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