Not two weeks into Richmond and I’ve already discovered that what I’ve heard is true. History and historic sites are at the center of a fairly robust public dialog. Outside of Asheville and the “Army of Liberation” event last year, I can’t think of any organizations or institutions that are actively nurturing alternative stories or straight up historical counternarratives similar to what I’ve seen in RVA.
One example is the group art show Truthful History Heals currently up at The Iridian Gallery at Diversity Richmond. The show brings together creative reimaginings, via photo illustration, of the Robert E. Lee monument, audience submitted ideas for alternative monuments, a series of historic markers with alternative narratives, and a collection of art inspired by Richmond’s monumental landscape. Curator Beth Marschak notes that, after observing “a panel of ‘experts’ discussing” the monuments, “I began to think of other ways for people to be part of this important community conversation, and realized that the visual arts provide another avenue for participation; one that might allow many more people to be engaged that the public forums where so often the same people dominated the verbal discussion.”
The counternarratives on exhibit here defy expectations because, while provocative, are also whimsical, humorous, and scrupulously fair in their historical assessments. (The Jeb Stuart marker, for instance, acknowledges his brilliance, but also that he screwed the pooch at times, too.)
As a larger voice, they suggest that these monuments have always—historically—been contested, that this history matters to groups in RVA in ways that traditional institutions fail to represent, and that contemporary identities are conscientiously defined by these counternarratives.
I don’t think that we in the traditional history museum business have sole claim to define what constitutes acceptable modes of historical understanding. In fact, the historical connections and meanings expressed in the counternarratives at Iridian should inform us of the great need for, and great capaciousness of, an alternative approach to the past. We, as a larger community, should be in dialog with that.
Yet my fondest wish is that the curators, the artists, and their message—undiluted—could be made to feel welcome in our institutions. Our traditional visitors need it. We need it.
(The views expressed are mine, and do not represent those of my employer.)