Staying Vital

New exhibition at the Valentine shows how the institution has evolved while marking the beginning of its 125th anniversary.

Leave it to a woman to be the voice of reason.

The year was 1930 and the Valentine’s acting director Laura Bragg was not happy with plans to delay the reopening of the 30-year-old Valentine Museum after a major expansion. In typical early 20th century fashion, she expressed her dismay in a letter to then-president Granville Valentine, urging him to reopen the museum as planned in October.

“A finished museum is a dead one,” Bragg wrote.

Her point is driven home with a new exhibit, “An Unfinished Museum: 125 Years of the Valentine,” which runs through next year. What began as a general museum has evolved to one focused on the region’s history and one that is still unfinished as its collections, exhibitions and programs have changed and grown over time. The only constants are that the Valentine remains committed to sharing local stories and to being a presence in downtown Richmond.

At the time the Valentine Museum opened its doors in 1898, it was to showcase the collections of Mann S. Valentine and his family. When the Virginia Museum, which was open in Capital Square in the early 19th century, dissolved, Mann Valentine acquired several works from the museum to add to his collection of rare books, American and European art and sculpture, manuscripts and prints.

Valentine used his family’s wealth, accrued by his father as a dry goods merchant, enslaver and purveyor of Valentine’s Meat Juice, to fund the purchases as well as expeditions in search of rare artifacts. Beginning in the 1870s, Valentine and his sons raided Virginia and North Carolina’s Monacan and Cherokee burial mounds to steal human remains and funerary objects, resulting in a large ethnographic collection of objects.

As the exhibit points out, it took until the late 20th century for the museum to acknowledge that its holdings and exhibits overrepresented certain communities and stories while leaving out others entirely. Museum staff now focus on collecting and exploring different narratives to address the imbalance, while also developing shows with the input of community partners.

Two exhibits from 1989 highlight the shift toward being more inclusive of groups such as women, Black Richmonders, the working class, and Richmond’s Jewish community. The hooded figures in “Jim Crow: Racism and Reaction in the New South” and women’s big-shouldered polyester suits in “Dressed for Work” demonstrate a new emphasis beyond the traditionally told narratives.

“An Unfinished Museum: 125 Years of the Valentine” touches on the museum’s education and outreach programs, both critical to its mission since its founding in 1902. The Valentine has always welcomed students for free programming, as well as virtual programs for schools unable to visit.

As early as 1903, teachers were bringing their students to the Valentine and members of Richmond’s Art Club were meeting in the museum’s sculpture gallery to sketch casts of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Renaissance sculpture. An early 1900s photograph of “Miss Sands’ Drawing Class in Sculpture Hall” shows a roomful of Victorian-era young women –and one lone boy in knickers and suit jacket—sketching a discus thrower.

Although told mainly through the museum’s outstanding photography collection, the exhibit also includes one of Richmond author Tom Wolfe’s iconic white suits. It was after the author moved to New York City and ordered a white summer suit from a city tailor that his trademark style crystalized. Too hot to wear during the summer, Wolfe instead wore it in December, taking great pleasure in bewildering those who wouldn’t be caught dead in white after Labor Day.

The exhibition marks the beginning of a series of events that celebrate the Valentine’s 125th anniversary year. The main event is the completion of an expansion project that adds new collection storage and public access spaces, which are also documented in the show. The year-long celebration also will feature the opening of an innovative exhibition in the Edward Valentine Studio and a 125th Gala in spring 2024.

Perhaps the best example of how the Valentine has evolved over time sits one floor above the exhibition. The Monument Avenue Jefferson Davis statue, now covered in pink paint and sporting a deep indentation in its head after the 2020 George Floyd protests, is featured prominently in the main gallery, splayed out on its back. Visitors are encouraged to leave their thoughts about the figure on sticky notes for all to see. The comments are illuminating.

“To remain vital, museums must be living institutions that change with the times,” says Meg Hughes, deputy director of collections and curator for the exhibition. “The Valentine has done this time and time again over its history.”

“An Unfinished Museum: 125 Years of the Valentine” runs through Sept. 2, 2024, at the Valentine Museum, 1015 East Clay St. thevalentine.org

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