The Valentine Richmond History Center has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond, Virginia’s 400-year history for more than a century. The museum boasts one of the largest collections of historical clothing in the world. We had the pleasure of visiting the collection and recreated three of our favorite shirts with our personal touch. To learn more about the Valentine History Center, as well as the city that we live in, we met up with Bill Martin, the museum’s Director.
How was the Valentine Richmond History Center established?
The Valentine family was the founding family for the museum. Like many families in the middle of the nineteenth century, they sent their children to Europe to study. While in Europe they realized that in every great European city was a museum that was free, provided access to world culture and was a source for education and inspiration for people. Richmond did not have this. Immediately after the Civil War, the Valentines began to collect things from around Virginia, sponsor archaeological digs, and purchase classical sculpture. In 1882, Mann S. Valentine purchased an important house, the Wickham House, which was built in 1812. They packed the house with everything they had collected with the intention of creating a museum. In 1898, the house opened as the Valentine Museum to the public.
One of the signature collections at the History Center is the Costume and Textile Collection. Could you tell us more about the collection and its significance?
There were costume and textile objects since the museum’s opening. In those early years, the costume components were things associated with famous people, like George Washington’s cane. This notion of collecting objects of everyday life and reflecting this broader diversity of anything related to fiber and textiles came when the museum did a major renovation and expanded its galleries in the 1930s. The collection has grown to over 40,000 objects, which is a fairly significant.
The collection is one that is very interesting. Most of the prominent costume collections from around the country are in art museums and very few are located in history museums. In the past, I doubt the leadership within these institutions had an understanding and appreciation for the importance of the historical documents that clothes are. What clothes can tell us about our culture and lives are just as important as a book or painting. Now there’s this new elevation of fashion as not only art but as an important cultural record. I think it’s something that we can do here that’s a little different than just saying, ‘look at this designer dress.’
What’s really important for us is that a shirt, a dress, or a pair of shoes has the ability to tell a story of a person at that moment in their lives. People can connect and understand what a person’s problems may have been in Richmond at that time. There may be something that a viewer could learn as to how that person lived their life. There are thousands of examples in the collection, such as the first women’s pant suit that was worn to work. How people respond to the way someone is dressed is an interesting thing.
Could you give us some historical context on the original shirts that inspired the shirts of Ledbury + Valentine Collection?
What Ledbury has done is taken what was there and made it into something that people can value today. This collaboration was more than just producing reproductions. Today, a person can look in the mirror with a shirt from the collection on and realize that there was someone a hundred years ago that would’ve understood that shirt, but it’s something that is relevant today. It’s made from fabrics that you relate to now; it’s something that’s current.
We’re excited that the project has happened and the result is three very different approaches to a man’s shirt. For the work or hunting shirt, it was a very rough wool pullover shirt with patch pockets and arm patches on the sleeves. This is what someone would wear during the winter to stay warm. The next shirt is what we would call a dress shirt today. While we think about it as a formal shirt, it’s actually a shirt that would’ve been worn for people who were working in offices. There’s this notion that this style of shirt is only for a black tie event, but particularly in the early part of the twentieth century, this style of shirt would’ve been worn to work daily. Lastly there’s the pattern shirt, which would’ve traditionally been worn under a three-piece morning suit.
What are some of the major items that are in the collection – do you have any favorites?
That’s like asking which is my favorite child. There are certainly signature items that people love. I think that people like to know that Robert E. Lee’s boots are here, as well as George Washington’s cane. There are the super star items but in addition to those things we have some other objects that tell richer stories. For example, we have a whole collection of needlework that was created in the years after the Civil War at St. Joseph’s School, which was established so that young women who had lost their parents during the war could develop a skill. Many of these objects aren’t name brands, but are the things that are from everyday life.
How do you ensure the preservation of such a massive collection?
The thing is that most of the costumes and textiles are organic materials, so by their very nature, they’re degrading. For particular objects such as silk or cotton, there are ways that you can slow down the inevitable, but when you have a collection of this size, it’s very difficult. The thing that we do is try to slow that process. Our storage has constant humidity, constant temperature and it’s dark because light is one of the real killers for textiles. That’s part of what we do in all of our collections. Whether it’s photography, furniture, or paintings, we try to decide what’s the appropriate stable and long-term environment that slows down the degradation process.
Most people don’t see our collection storage areas. It’s that balance between preservation and access. If we really wanted to protect something forever, we’d put it in a box, close it up, seal it, and never have anyone look at it. For museums, it’s this balance of how do you provide public access in meaningful ways and making sure that the object has a life beyond that generation.
What roles do you see museums playing as we move more and more into the digital age?
We need to remember that research is always the core of what museums do. We want to preserve what we have for hundreds of years because everyone in the future is not going to be satisfied with just looking at a digital image. The costume and textile experience is one about touching and feeling something. This notion of the real object – making sure that it’s maintained and available for as long as possible is one of the unique opportunities that we have in the digital environment. What we have here is real. It’s going to be something that you have to want to see, so we have to protect it.
Something that is true about the Valentine is that the reason we’re still here is because of people who understand the value of what we have, but more importantly, understand that we can actually make some difference. There might be a child or someone who doesn’t learn everything in their life through a screen. When one of our instructors visits a classroom or the students come here and they play with a deerskin, the children are learning. There are a lot of people who are visual learners that need to see this stuff. It’s great to have collections, but it’s important to take what we have and connect it with people in their lives.
Learning is all about context and discovering a new perspective.
I think it’s only in our discomfort that we really learn. Being some place that is unusual, knowing someone who is outside of your normal circle and seeing things from someone else’s perspective that is unlike you, that is where the real stuff happens. Seeing a picture of things that you would have never done and talking to someone about it is where a lot of energy comes from. I think that’s what’s happening a lot in Richmond. We’re willing to make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable. So, we’re talking about our past in different ways.
You spend a lot of time researching Richmond’s past, but where do you see the city going in the future?
The history of Richmond is going to be an important part of who we are in the future, but it could also be something different. We can think about a future of Richmond that’s not totally imbedded in what we think our past looks like. The past doesn’t define the future, it informs it. We’re not defined by that past, but it becomes a part of the definition of our future.
I think that is what’s going on in Richmond. As a city we’re asking, ‘What does it mean to be Richmond? We’re not going to be anybody else, this is what we are and we’re ok with that.’ I think we finally woke up one morning and said, ‘We’re going to be Richmond. We’re going to have fun on the river. We’re going to eat well. We’re going to have amazing arts and people are going to enjoy it.’ We understand that the city has had a troubled past. We have a trouble present. But we’re not going to be defined by the present troubles; we’re going to keep going.
There’s this tension between how we think about our past and what our past was. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that tension, because that’s where our energy is. In the tension from our past is where we might find ourselves better.
It was a pleasure collaborating with the staff at the Valentine Richmond History Center on this project. Although the museum is currently undergoing renovations, the museum is still open and offers guided tours of the historic Wickham and hosts a weekly Hard Hat Happy Hour. If you find yourself in Richmond, we encourage you to stop by for a truly enriching experience.