Memory  /  Museum Review

Richmond Tore Down its Statues — and Revealed a New Angle on History

After the 2020 removal of Confederate memorials, museums provide a place to confront the ugly past and find a way forward.

Old Jeff Davis now lies on his back, his head bashed in, his right arm loose in its socket, his bronze pelt covered in pink and yellow paint, with scraps of tissue paper stuck to his lapel and collar. From 1907 to June 10, 2020, the people of Richmond looked up at this statue, set on a high plinth beneath a towering column on Monument Avenue during the height of Jim Crow racism.

Today, they look down on him, just another object on display at the Valentine, a local history museum that also houses the studio where artist Edward Valentine sculpted this and other icons of the Lost Cause, which glorified the Confederacy and corrupted American history, education and politics down to the moment we inhabit today.

Nearby, the museum has posted a history of how the statue became an increasingly intolerable symbol during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, protesters toppled it to the ground.

Across town, at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC), another Lost Cause icon sculpted by Valentine is on view. On Dec. 21, 2020, after a request by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the bronze figure of Robert E. Lee was removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, where it had represented the Commonwealth since 1909.

Today, it stands in a darkened, formal chamber of the VMHC, which reopened on May 14 after a 19-month transformative renovation and expansion of its exhibit spaces. The museum inhabits a sprawling complex, the oldest wing of which opened in 1921 as a shrine to the Lost Cause by the now-defunct Confederate Memorial Institute. The VMHC has preserved the mural room from that original shrine, its walls covered with heroic and hyperbolic Lost Cause imagery, sanctifying the defenders of slavery and treason. Lee and the murals have been recontextualized with interpretive signage that explains their role in perpetuating the lies of the Lost Cause.

Since the Confederate memorials of Monument Avenue began coming down two years ago — part of a national reckoning with racist, offensive and historically false iconography — Richmond has emerged as a locus for innovative public history. The display of Edward Valentine’s statues in two different institutions points the way forward for reinscribing ugly symbols into a larger and ongoing narrative about racism. The renovation and expansion of the history museum foreground geographical and cultural diversity to create common ground for confronting the state’s ugly history not just of slavery and racism, but Native American dispossession. And across the city, vigorous groups with strong community roots have grown into formidable new voices for explicating a larger, more textured history of Richmond, beyond its Confederate past.