“The Richmond Museum is one of the best kept secrets in the city,” said Emma J. Clark, former supervising reference librarian for the city of Richmond and Richmond Museum of History board member, while at the museum this past Saturday for Museum Day Live.
The nationwide event, sponsored by Smithsonian Magazine, encourages museum admission by helping museums waive their admission fees for the day. Participating in the event is one way executive director Melinda McCrary is hoping to transform the museum—and the ways in which it serves the community.
On Saturday, a sign at the museum’s entrance read, “Please help us redesign our exhibit! Please remember the Richmond Museum of History cannot be a local museum without the input of the community!”
“Many people in Richmond don’t see themselves in our exhibits,” McCrary said. “Their stories, their histories are not present. We need to serve the entire community.”
McCrary, who became director in 2013, said she feels the museum is responsible for representing the history of all populations and socioeconomic groups. The museum’s permanent exhibit depicts life in Richmond from the 18th century through World War II—but they don’t cover many important aspects of Richmond’s history. African-American, Latino, Native American and Southeast Asian histories are largely missing from the displays.
To address this, McCrary has created a series of community engagement advisory committees intended to reshape the museum’s permanent exhibits. Recently, for example, she assembled a Native American Advisory Committee to tell the story of Richmond’s native population through a series of planning workshops. Participants will work with McCrary to look through the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts kept in storage and rewrite the museum’s signage on Native-American life on the land where Richmond now sits. McCrary also plans to emphasize stories of racial justice and tension by collecting oral histories, particularly those from African Americans who lived in Richmond during World War II.
“Rather than present one conversation on what people should think of their local history, we want to make our curation and exhibition process a two-way conversation on diversity,” McCrary said.
McCrary calls this “community curation,” and invites Richmond citizens to take part in envisioning the museum as a more inclusive, representative, and culturally contemporary space.
Clark, who is also a past director of the museum, said she comes back frequently to see how it’s grown and changed.
“Everyone in Richmond should want to come and see what their history is,” Clark said.
“Local history fosters a sense of place, pride and connection,” McCrary said. “Richmond’s local history shows that people can achieve extraordinary things. And that we can make extraordinary change in our community by purposely envisioning how to talk about our history.”