Somehow I’m the last to know that there is a third (or fourth?) design for a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom. And, might I add, it’s my favorite:
It looks like the design was completed by a partnership between the former BAM firm and SMBW then, I assume, it followed Chris Fultz to it’s current home on his website, fultzarchitects.com. The homepage of that site got me planning my next cross-country road trip … until I realized that this Slavery Museum design also won an AIARVA honor award in 2010. A little older than I thought. Then I found an article on this design, “Bridging the Gaps,” published in Richmond Magazine on October 19, 2009. The author of that article writes,
“All Eyes on Shockoe, Again
The city of Richmond seems poised to embrace a national museum with a culturally significant subject and create the kind of international profile the region has been so desperate to achieve.”
Of course, five years later, we know that all eyes are on Shockoe again, again. This article was a good reminder of the many hours spent designing plans that were never completed.
I found a more recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article on this design published January 30, 2013. I’m not entirely sure how this design was still newsworthy after four years in existence, but I assume it was either gradually developed or gradually revealed to the public, or both. This article appears to be a followup with more details on the plan. According to the Times-Dispatch:
“The Richmond Slave Trail Commission…released its vision to develop a $100 million to $150 million heritage site in Shockoe Bottom, including a slavery museum, an African-American genealogical center and a glass-enclosed Lumpkin’s Jail archeological site.”
In the past year this design seems to have been generally forgotten and replaced by another less-ambitions (albeit beautiful) design for a slavery commemoration in Shockoe Bottom.
So what happened to the 2009 design? The question was recently posed in a comment on the Style Weekly article “Getting Wilder.” Thomas writes,
“The building Wilder wants for the museum doesn’t even look big enough to house a “National” slavery museum. If you want a grand one on a national scale, start from scratch. What happened to that National Slavery Museum proposal by Fultz Architects? That was the best one. We should have jumped on that one…”
I tend to agree. It’s no surprise that I’d rather Richmond move forward with something exceptional than settle for something acceptable. Besides, there are examples of projects of that scale in this country that were funded by a combination of state, local, and private funds. I continue to believe that good ideas of far-reaching significance energize donors more than anything else.
The story of this design should cause us all to take a step back. After reading through each article I found myself wondering,
How can one city generate so many incredible, unfinished designs?
On the one hand, this is just a factor of the architecture industry. An astounding number of designs are submitted every year that are never realized. But it still seems to point to a deeper issue of governance that prevents us from connecting the plans to reality. Every so often I stumble upon another great idea for Richmond that somehow never found funding or political momentum. And now we have this “economic development plan” for Shockoe Bottom that seems to be moving in the same direction. So what can we do next time to prevent the same results?
I found the best answer to my question in the original Richmond Magazine article from 2009. Christy Coleman, the president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, states that the planning process for a museum of this scale should not begin with a building design. The article continues:
A fledgling museum should begin with a mission statement and a plan of whether it will be a “collecting” institution — one that houses a vast collection of artifacts for display and research — or a “storytelling” institution that strives to communicate knowledge and an experience to its visitors.
“All of these things start coming up that will have an incredible impact on the long-term operations,” [Coleman] says.
We ought to extend this wisdom to any large-scale project brought forward for the benefit of the people of Richmond: start with your mission statement. What is the essential purpose of the development and how will it serve the needs of the city?
As we have seen, there are many architects and firms in the area that are more than willing to turn a good idea into sparkling designs. They might even do it at a discounted rate if they are particularly inspired by the proposal and assured that this time there is a likelihood that the project will actually happen. This city has incredible potential, regional powerhouse corporations, and visionary leaders. Together I truly believe we can make something great.
But first, we need a good idea.