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The statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond's Monument Avenue before it was brought down by activists last summer. (image by olekinderhook via Wikimedia Commons)

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A museum in Richmond, Virginia that bears the family name of Edward V. Valentine — the American sculptor behind numerous Confederate monuments — wants to exhibit a statue of Jefferson Davis created by the artist that was toppled during Black Lives Matter protests last year. The museum, known as the Valentine, has petitioned the city of Richmond to let it display the sculpture as it was found, graffitied and tipped over, as part of efforts to confront its problematic legacy, reports the Washington Post.

“Actually bringing that statue back to the spot where it was created has a unique power to it,” museum director Bill Martin told the Post. “When you think about the creation of the Lost Cause myth — it was built around this particular spot in this garden at the Valentine.”

Valentine’s Recumbent Statue of General Robert E. Lee in the Chancel of Chapel of Washington and Lee University. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library via NYPL )

Born in 1838 in Richmond, Valentine studied art in Paris, Italy, and Berlin with artists such as Thomas Couture and August Kiss. Upon his return to Virginia in 1865, he staked a claim as a sculptor of notable Southerners, in particular Confederate figures. In addition to his statue of Davis previously on Monument Avenue, Valentine is known for “Lee Recumbent,” a likeness of Robert E. Lee currently housed in the general’s mausoleum in Washington and Lee University in Lexington. Valentine also designed the Lee sculpture that was removed two weeks ago from the Capitol building in Washington, DC, to be replaced with one of civil rights leader Barbara Johns.

By immortalizing these icons in bronze and stone, Valentine contributed to the iconography of the “Lost Cause” that is now undergoing revision as the nation grapples with its history of slavery and anti-Black violence.

Today, the artist’s studio is part of the Valentine, a museum founded in 1898 by the artist’s brother as the Valentine Richmond History Center to document the city’s 400-year history. The sculptor served as the institution’s s first president from its opening until his death in 1930. Its collection totals more than 900,000 objects and includes both personal items, such as toys and furniture, as well as rare materials and Native American artifacts.

Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War and a fervent supporter of slavery. His statue is one of four racist symbols taken down from Monument Avenue so far by both demonstrators and city officials. In an effort to reimagine the infamous Richmond boulevard, best known for its statues commemorating the Confederacy, Governor Ralph Northam has tasked the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with finding artists to create new public art commissions.

The plinth of the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, VA after the statue was removed. (photo by Rain0975 via Flickr)

In the wake of the state and the nation’s overdue reckoning, the Valentine is working to rethink its mission. According to the Post, the museum has hired Josh Epperson, a Black, Richmond-based consultant, who is working directly with community members to gather feedback and ideas.

Meanwhile, curators at the museum are delving into Valentine’s life, work, and personal views. They found that he produced several figures reminiscent of “pickaninny” aesthetics: racist caricatures of Black children, including one of Henry Page, a man who was enslaved by the Valentine family.

The museum hopes to reopen the artist’s studio in 2022 with a new exhibition that centers these findings, explores the consequences of racist symbols, and, ideally, includes the dismantled Davis statue.

“What this place proves is that people and institutions can change,” Martin told the Post. “We haven’t changed enough. We have lots of change ahead of us. But we have this particular opportunity in this particular moment, and these stories need to be told.”

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...