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With COVID-19 Precautions, Valentine Museum Opens New Exhibit

The Valentine Museum
The Valentine Museum is opening a new exhibit, albeit with COVID-19 precautions in place. (Photo: Alexander Broening/VPM News)

*VPM intern Alexander Broening reported this story

The Valentine Museum is opening a new exhibit on Tuesday that highlights Richmond’s history during the Roaring Twenties. The exhibit, named after the ‘20s song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that was covered by Richmonder Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, features 45 flashy costumes and outfits from the fashions of Richmond’s Jazz Age.

But Eric Steigleder, communications director at the Valentine, says that the exhibit tells another story, too.

“You had the bright clothes and the jazz and the music, but you also had a Richmond that was at the height of the Jim Crow era.” He says that Richmond in the ‘20s, “was in many ways at odds with itself.”

The exhibit includes Maggie L. Walker’s bathing suit and a photo of her at the beach with friends, breaking away from the more serious typical depictions of the Richmond entrepreneur and banker.

Steigleder hopes that by sharing the lives of Black Richmonders, the exhibit will add nuance to a period of history that is often seen only as the height of American excess.

“Yes, there was this opportunity for leisure, but the question becomes for who, and when?” Steigleder said.

The exhibit, curated by Kristen Stewart, acknowledges the euro-centric nature of the Valentine’s collection from the period. Steigleder says many museums at the time weren’t interested in obtaining diverse collections, and that even today, the Valentine’s collection doesn’t reflect the lives of all Richmonders. It's an issue he says they're actively addressing.

“Even with all these beautiful costumes and garments, the fashion story of Black Richmond from the 1920s is missing,” he explained.

The exhibit also draws parallels between the Roaring Twenties and the current day.

“The 1920s ushered in this very unique moment where you see youth culture exploding, and you also see this dramatic shift of women entering the workforce,” Steigleder says. And, he adds, a century later, the same themes of oppression of African Americans are being made extremely visible by protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

The Valentine has made its collection free to visitors through the end of the summer. Because of COVID-19 precautions, visitors can sign up for timed tickets on the museum’s website. Patrons are also required to wear face masks and practice social distancing in the exhibits.

CORRECTION: Steigleder said "many" museums at the time did not have diverse collections. The way we worded the sentence previously made it sound like he was speaking about all historical institutions, and we have updated it.

After publication, Eric Steigleder reached out to say he failed to mention that the Valentine is in the process of diversifying their collection. We added that to the copy.

Editor’s Note: We should disclose the Valentine is a sponsor of VPM. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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