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Some of the 1,400 postcards in The Valentine's archival collection that lack documentation (photo by Chet Strange).
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This 1910 postcard was sent from Church Hill resident Mrs. Schiebelhuth to a Mrs. H.C. Rizer in Cumberland, Maryland (photo courtesy The Valentine).
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These taxidermy birds, circa 1850, are also among items in The Valentine collection for which there is no information (photo by Chet Strange).
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The Valentine’s curator of archives, Meg Hughes, and David Voelkel, the Elise H. Wright curator of the general collection (photo by Chet Strange).
If Mrs. Schiebelhuth of 607 N. 25th St. in Richmond were the efficient sort, the type who would write a postcard and mail it on the same day, then on Aug. 29, 1910, she did precisely that.
“Dear Friend, Your lovely card rec’d, have been away from home or should have answered sooner. We have had a fine rain and my garden is splendid. Sincerely, Mrs. Schiebelhuth.
The postcard, depicting the since-demolished Regimental Armory at Seventh and Marshall streets, and postmarked at 7:30 p.m., is addressed in fine cursive to Mrs. H.C. Rizer, 21 Independence St., Cumberland, MD.
And now you know almost everything that The Valentine’s curator of archives, Meg Hughes, does about the card.
What she cannot tell you is how a postcard mailed to Maryland from Richmond ended up in The Valentine’s collection. Who donated it to the museum? When? Why did someone think The Valentine would be a good home (and it happens to be a perfect home) for it?
“I would like to know how it made its way here,” Hughes says.
The postcard is one of roughly 1,400 in the Valentine’s archival collection that has no accompanying documentation. The postcards exist, along with hundreds of other objects throughout the museum, without provenance. No accompanying documentation. No donor names. No deed of gift or declaration of intent. This creates not just a curatorial bind, but also a legal one. Without clear title, the museum cannot, for example, cull from its general collection the falling-apart 1890s dressmaker form draped in plastic in a secure third-floor room. The curators cannot be sure they are using the gifts in the manner in which they were intended. Someone saw fit to give The Valentine a drawing of a cigar store Indian from 1939. Someone believed that a Miller & Rhoads department store trade sign belonged at the museum. The same for the 1860s hat rack and the mid-19th century lamp shade and the five fencing foils from the late 19th century that don’t appear to have anything to do with Richmond.
They are items that exist in the cruelest of museum purgatories: They are objects without stories.
“And for us, the most important part of an item in our collection is the story it tells,” says David Voelkel, the Elise H. Wright curator of the general collection, which has several hundred thousand objects. “Without knowing who owned it, who used it, who made it, who donated it, objects have less value. We are not in the business of collecting old things. We are in the business of collecting objects that tell stories.”
As such, The Valentine is preparing to do something it has never done before: offer the public a list of objects in its collections for which its curators cannot find documentation. The list will be published in a yet-to-be-determined local paper’s legal notices in March. The hope — and it’s a long shot — is that someone will survey the items and say, “Wait a minute, didn’t Mom donate a set of 56 teacups to The Valentine?” And then, hope upon hope, that said person will be able to prove through photos or letters or after curatorial investigation that, indeed, yes, those were Mom’s teacups and, yes, she did want The Valentine to have them. And, finally, fingers crossed, not take them back, but deed them to The Valentine. Some items the museum will want to keep. Some it will put up for auction.
The first list being prepared for publication holds 46 groupings of objects. The 56 teacups are one grouping. So are the 1,400 postcards and the set of nine restaurant-grade, mid-20th century China bowls and the three Sauer’s spice tins, and, well, you get the picture. Each carries its own unique number identifying it as undocumented property or an item Found in Collection (FIC).
“It’s going to be fun, in some ways, and I think it’s going to be a little bit of a shock for people to see a list in the newspaper of all these things and think, ‘What is The Valentine doing?’ ” museum Director Bill Martin says. “What we don’t want people to think is that we are selling their grandmother’s underwear.”
“Punch bowl,” suggests Domenick Casuccio, the museum’s director of public relations and marketing.
“Rusty steamer trunk,” adds Voelkel.
“By following this, we are making sure we are being the best stewards for these objects rather than just pretending that they don’t exist,” Hughes says.
A process for this kind of housekeeping was laid out in a 2002 state law, which was passed at the urging of the museum community. The profession is relatively young, the curators say, and its standards for accepting items into a collection have grown more rigorous over time. The Valentine, which opened to the public as a museum in 1898, didn’t get its first professional director until the 1930s, Martin says. Unlike today’s accession process, which involves the relevant curator, a collections committee, museum board approval and then a legal deed of gift, a curator alone could make the call on whether to accept an item or not. So, no more dropping off that box you found in grandma’s attic at the front counter. Or the front steps.
The law requires posting in the legal notices a list of the found items, as well as what the museum wants to do with each: keep or auction, and, if no one wants it, destroy. After a 65-day waiting period for someone to come forward, the museum can claim legal title.
Despite the clamor for the law, Martin says, few museums have undertaken the process in the 13 years since it was passed, and no other institution in the Richmond region has.
“I think the issue is human resources,” says Jennifer Thomas, executive director of the Virginia Association of Museums. “So many museums are so tight on staffing that this type of collections cleanup goes to the lower priority list. Conservation and preservation of items come first.”
The Valentine has long tracked its FIC objects, but began this process in earnest over the last year or so, for a couple of reasons. It hired Kristen Stewart, the Nathalie L. Klaus Curator of Costume and Textiles, and so, finally, has a full complement of curators. It is also planning a complete renovation of its second- and third-floor storage rooms. A more compact, “smarter” storage system will go in, as well as a new research and reading room. Shelf space and conservation funds will be at a premium. The time is right, then, to refine the collection to ensure it reflects The Valentine’s mission of telling Richmond’s stories, the curators say.
More lists of found objects will come. The Valentine is called Richmond’s attic for a reason. It has stewardship of roughly 1.5 million distinct objects, one million of which belong to the museum’s renowned photography collection. Most of the museum’s holdings have the legal paperwork, the provenance. But, the curators estimate, perhaps around 10 percent don’t.
“We can’t tell you how many because we’re still inventorying the collection, “ Hughes says. “We’re still opening up boxes.”
“Right, this is ongoing,” Stewart says “Not only for The Valentine, but for every museum. Every department of every museum opens a drawer and finds something that is a mystery.”
Perhaps someone will come forward with the story of how Mrs. Schiebelhuth’s postcard to a friend in Maryland ended up in a plastic sleeve in a cardboard box on a shelf on the second floor of The Valentine. Perhaps that person will tell the story and give the card a life beyond the words written upon it. But even if no one does, it offers the kind of humble local story that The Valentine cherishes: A woman returned to her Church Hill home after her travels, pleased to find her garden lush and vibrant in the heavy, rain-scented air of a 1910 Richmond summer.