It’s All Relative: Richmond Families

By David B. Voelkel

The Dunn Family, May 25, 1989, Lindy Keast Rodman, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, V.91.04.1243

What makes a family? Who can define your family? The Valentine shares in the dialogue with this new exhibition, It’s All Relative: Richmond Families (1616–2016), which opened on October 13 in the Stettinius Community Galleries.

It’s All Relative explores the changing definition and composition of families in the Richmond community from the 17th century to today. Families by nature tend to be complicated, and while each family is unique, we can all relate to a multiplicity of experiences, stories and values.

Federal and state legislation as well as continuing local conversations on all sides of the issue have shaped and defined Richmond’s family relationships since the early-17th-century marriage of John and Rebecca (Matoaka/Pocahontas) Rolfe. As the centuries progressed, Richmond families proliferated, and settlement spread from the James River into the surrounding counties. The region’s wealth of resources attracted immigrant families from other colonies and states as well as from foreign countries. Religion played a role in defining communal values and family stories, some of which are explored through 18th- and early-19th-century family portraits and bibles of past citizens including Catherine Harrison Murchie and Joseph and Richea Marx.

Mr. Matthew Delaney and son, c. 1859, The Valentine.

The story begins in the museum lobby with a display of objects celebrating Greek families and the 2017 centennial anniversary of the founding of Richmond’s Greek Orthodox Church. It continues into the Stettinius galleries, where visitors can explore the diverse experiences of Richmond families including interracial marriage, marriage equality, economic distribution and more through painted portraits, objects and digital slideshows.

The second gallery presents a digital photo album featuring hundreds of images from the Valentine’s collection as well as images loaned by local photographers Michael K. Lease and Kimberly Wolfe from their project The Battery Park Stories: Reflections of Our Neighborhood.

The last gallery features contemporary interviews of many Richmond families collected in collaboration with VCU professor Dana Ollestad. The gallery also spotlights John and Elizabeth Wickham and their large, blended family of 19 children. The show-stopping piece in this space might just be the mid-19th century Italian marble mantelpiece — originally added to the 1812 Wickham House by second owner John Ballard.

I had the honor of collaborating with designer Elizabeth Anne Enright, art handler/installer Josh Aubry and media artist Dana Ollestad to create this provocative assemblage of Richmond families.

It’s All Relative: Richmond Families (1616–2016) is on view in the Stettinius Community Galleries until June 18, 2017. The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Julia and Tunnicliff Fox Charitable Trust, Altria Group and Richmond Family Magazine.

The Davis Family, 2016, by Michael K. Lease and Kimberly Wolfe.