The History of "History" 

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A bronze bust of a delightfully animated Captain John Smith welcomes visitors to The Library of Virginia's current exhibition, "Myth and Memory: Understanding 400 Years of Virginia History." As depicted by sculptor Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, this iconic Jamestown personality telegraphs a Santa Claus presence: He has a twinkle in his eye, a mischievous smile on his lips and a jaunty twist to his head. he looks to be on top of his game, and his visage foretells that the English have ignited something in the New World that will grow more interesting over time.

Sharing the display case with the Smith bust is a more subdued piece. This is a small 1857 oil portrait of Pocahontas, the Native American princess who Smith claimed famously, had saved his life from the ire of her father, Powhatan. As depicted by artist Robert Weir, Pocahontas looks bright and resolute, if wary. Like Smith, her aura suggests also that things are going to change -- though not in her people's favor.

Throughout this year, Virginia is marking the 400th anniversary of the uneasy meeting in 1607 of the English and the Indians. And since Africans joined the mix soon thereafter in 1619, that story is also being told during the commemoration. Speeches are being delivered, special visitors received, historic attractions spruced up, books published and spin, well, being spun.

"Myth and Memory," an intelligent, lively and handsomely installed exhibition, is largely about spinning history. It examines how different generations chose to remember and present events and individuals in particular lights to achieve certain ends. History is not a bucket of dry facts, but a vast reservoir of fluid experience from which events can be drawn for desired effect. Generally, the end is to move, if not herd, a community toward certain social, cultural or political ends.

Virginia has deep wells of possibilities for historical exploitation. And "Myth and Memory" plucks but a handful of events to examine how sometimes the same historical event was spun at different times and in different ways, depending on the needs and expectations of the time.

The exhibit focuses on how the Jamestown story was told on the occasion of major anniversaries in 1857, 1907 and in 1957. It examines not only how George Washington was anointed and elevated to mythic heights even during his lifetime, but how his story is brushed off and re-burnished when the times demand.

We see how the Civil War was interpreted and celebrated from soon after Appomattox to well into the 20th century, how Emancipation was celebrated by blacks, and the lure of outdoor pageants and parades. The exhibit also explores the tangible "landscape of memory" — the fascination with placing markers along highways, creating heritage trails and restoring or rebuilding landmarks (even if the evidence is spotty).

The wealth of artifacts in "Myth and Memory" is essential to this objective approach, to the multiple perspectives. There are colorful posters, faded photographs, yellowed programs and pamphlets, and tacky — and actually rather nice — souvenirs. There is an ample array of sheet music — how about a rousing rendition of George M. Cohan's "Father of the Land We Love," which saluted Washington on his 200th birthday?

When seen in isolation — in a bottom drawer or in a cardboard box in the attic — any of these artifacts could appear underwhelming and not necessarily compelling. But this exhibition is presented in a fresh, spunky, even hip way. Credit partially the background colors that are used: The palette is from a special color chart (also on display) that was devised by the Color Association of the United States for the 350th observance of Jamestown in 1957. Each hue is given a poetic name: "Jamestown Clay" is a warm salmon, "Glass Green" could be a Prada handbag and "River Aqua" a tone from a J. Crew catalog.

What will we bring back from our summer travels as a memento to mark our own movement or the brush with historic or special places? This exhibition suggests that every souvenir is loaded with meaning. And with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War ang the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe fast-approaching, how will those stories be spun locally for fresh audiences? "Myth and Memory" posits that how history is told can be as telling and compelling as what is being told. S

"Myth and Memory: Understanding 400 Years of Virginia History" runs through Dec. 15 at The Library of Virginia. 692-3500.
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