Robert E. Lee statue from Capitol will become a museum exhibit of changing attitudes on race
By LAURA VOZZELLA | The Washington Post | Published: December 22, 2020
RICHMOND, Va. — The old general is flat on his back now, in the museum equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys.
Robert E. Lee's 700-pound likeness left the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol and landed here Tuesday morning as workers rolled the statue off a truck and left it supine, on a wooden pallet, in storage space at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
The life-size bronze will rise again, but not in a way that glorifies the Confederate hero. It seems destined instead for an exhibit that looks critically at Lee's place in the national and Southern psyche — from the "lost cause" mythology that rewarded the leader of an armed rebellion with a perch in Congress's National Statuary Hall to the recent racial reckoning that triggered the statue's retreat to Richmond.
The bronze could wind up sharing gallery space with a charred chunk of Richmond city bus, torched last summer amid protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
"Our hope is, we will be able to interpret the statue in such a way that tells the story of the people, the place and the time in which Virginians lived," said Andrew Talkov, the museum's senior director for curatorial affairs. "Because it tells us about how people in Virginia wanted to remember the American Civil War in the early 20th century, and how that has changed over time to where we are today."
Talkov discussed potential exhibit plans only in the broadest strokes. Details have yet to be worked out at the museum, which is shuttered for renovation until the spring of 2022.
Created by Richmond sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine, the Lee bronze had stood since 1909 in Statuary Hall, where every state gets two statues. The state's other pick: George Washington.
Workers removed Lee on Monday at the request of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who called it a "relic" from a less inclusive time. A commission chartered by the Virginia General Assembly has recommended swapping the tribute to the general who fought to defend slavery for a statue of a Black civil rights leader, Barbara Johns. As a 16-year-old in 1951, Johns led a walkout at her segregated high school in Farmville. Her protest became part of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which made illegal the practice of racial segregation in public schools.
Workers who'd trucked the statue from Washington backed up to the museum's loading dock early Tuesday and, using a dolly, rolled the pallet off the vehicle, onto a rattling freight elevator and into a temporary storage area.
There, in the company of wooden crates, a giant dollhouse, an old department store clock, a sheet of flooring and a new street sign that the city needs to pick up, the workers unwrapped Lee from the swaddling of blue and gray quilts.
Lee was a controversial pick when the General Assembly voted in 1903 to make him one of the state's two honorees in Statuary Hall. There was pushback from both the Richmond Planet, a Black newspaper, and Union veterans who'd fought against Lee, Talkov said. But the Whites who controlled the state legislature did not budge.
There was an uproar again in 1907, when it became clear that Valentine would portray the general in his Confederate uniform. But the legislature ultimately quelled opposition by offering a twofer: it would also provide a statue of Washington, based on the Jean-Antoine Houdon masterpiece already installed in the state Capitol in Richmond.
Talkov said the exhibit will tell that story — "and then the story of the intervening 100-plus years that brought us to the point we're at today, where the commonwealth decided that they did not want Lee to represent the commonwealth of Virginia at Statuary Hall. And it's a fascinating story that we'll tell from a variety of perspectives."
The museum has some artifacts from this summer's unrest, including a tear-gas canister used on protesters, a broken face shield and signs saying, "Black-owned business," intended to ward off vandals and rioters. The museum is working to acquire others, including a portion of the bus. The Greater Richmond Transit Authority has said it would consider giving a piece to the museum, but it has to keep the vehicle intact until an insurance settlement is worked out, Talkov said.
Other artifacts in the storage space with Lee also will reappear in the museum with new context. The big, square clock that once loomed over Thalhimers department store, for example, used to be showcased as a mere retail relic. Talkov said the museum probably will play up the 1960s sit-ins at the store's segregated lunch counter.
The storage space also is holding, for now, a brand-new street sign that tells a story of transformation. It was left there last year when the city renamed the street out front for Arthur Ashe, the tennis great who was not allowed to play on segregated city courts.
The city is to come pick up the"Arthur Ashe Boulevard" sign and post in on a nearby corner.
But for now, it's one more reminder that Lee has returned to a Richmond he'd scarcely recognize.