Each museum faces the same seemingly insurmountable mountain: how do you translate vast, diverse histories into a coherent and engaging manner? This challenge seems all the more impenetrable for state history museums, as they attempt to provide visitors with a clear sense of a state’s identity, the good and the bad alike. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond more than rises to this challenge, though, with an interesting and nuanced tour of Virginia history. As a recent Texas transplant in the Commonwealth, I was interested in expanding my historical knowledge of Virginia beyond my own very niche research interests, I left the museum with a wealth of information regarding the history of my adopted home.
Upon entering the museum, I was faced with a variety of permanent and visiting installations. My eye, however, was drawn to a powerful and poignant exhibit, which will be the focus of this review. “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” demanded full attention and reflection upon the painful obstacles thrown in front of racial progress in Virginia. The intent of the exhibition clear: Freedom and justice are precarious and precious things to hold. Virginia still has a long way to go in the fight for equity and justice, but there is a long history of courageous folks who have worked hard in the service of progress in the face of tremendous odds.
The exhibition was laid out chronologically, with a biographical emphasis on famous African American Virginians, moving chronologically from 1619 to present day. The artifacts selected were displayed to great effect and offered a deeply personal connection to the written history on each information card. One piece, close to the entrance of the exhibit, stayed with me long after I left the museum: a check, written by a Boston abolitionist society, used to purchase Mr. Anthony Burns’ freedom while he languished in prison under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act, having fled enslavement in Stafford County, VA in 1854.
The exhibition tried hard to avoid ending on too triumphant a note, even though prominent victories in civil rights advancement and key successes in the long fight for freedom were on display, such as the student-lead campaigns to end Jim Crow segregation in schools. Rather, the overall tone was one of somber reflection. Adjacent to the exhibition’s exit, a spent gas canister from the 2017 white supremacist attack in Charlottesville was positioned next to a photograph of Zyahna Bryant, a Charlottesville High School student and activist who started a petition in 2016 to have the statue of Robert E. Lee removed.
The adjoining room offered a space for visitors to offer feedback and grapple with the precariousness of progress and long histories of inequality. A wall filled with index cards bore the names of those who inspired visitors with their grace and perseverance. Directly across from the index cards was a grand canvas charting the Blackwell Family Tree from 1735-1991. This powerful roadmap of a family’s journey from enslavement to freedom seemed a fitting image for visitors to meditate upon as they left the exhibition.
I felt the image of the canvas weighing heavily on me as I left the museum and glanced in the room bearing the Memorial Military Murals, a tribute to Confederate battle victories, located one floor below “Determined.” The stark contrast between a space originally designed to laud the Confederacy and one which included the physical remnants of slavery in Virginia was jarring, and laid bare the absolute necessity of exhibits such as “Determined” that make difficult historic truths plainly visible.
I highly recommend setting aside an entire day or even several visits for the museum’s many exhibitions. The large “Story of Virginia” rooms take visitors through several centuries of Virginia history, ending, as did “Determined,” in present-day. These periods were marked mostly by the most famous events associated with each era, from the American Revolution to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (with the recognition that this occurred, of course, in West Virginia) to the Civil War to the fight for women’s suffrage in the state. Modest entry fees, free parking, and friendly and informative museum staff made it very easy for me to take in all of the exhibits at my leisure. If you’re interested in a deep dive into Virginia history, VMHC is an excellent place to start.
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Katy Telling is a second-year PhD student in History at William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, researching gender, religion, and power in the early American South. In addition to her studies, she works as co-coordinator for the Octo website at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.