RICHMOND, Va. -- The GRTC Pulse bus set on fire and left charred on Broad Street has, for some, become an iconic image of both the protests and riots that have occurred in Richmond since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd and arrest of the former Minneapolis police officer charged with his murder.
The bus, or at least parts of it, may soon reside in a museum and help tell -- to future generations -- the story unfolding every day on the streets of Richmond.
“I decided to call the GRTC on Monday to inquire about the possibility of getting a piece of that burned out GRTC bus to add to our collection as one of hopefully many artifacts that will document the goings-on of late,” Dr. Karen Sherry, the curator of museum collections at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, said.
A GRTC spokesperson said the transit company would be open to that discussion, once investigations into the May 30 bus burning were completed.
“Ultimately, if this results in the museum getting a piece of that bus, I could see us using it in various gallery contexts. Any exhibition that discusses the history of racism in our society and the ways in which black Americans, People of Color, and their allies have fought for recognition of the problems and redress of the problems. So I think that would provide a context for this, anything that talks about civil disobedience and protest would also provide a context for showing this item," Sherry said. “Because it was a Pulse bus, if we were doing some kind of story about the development of the Pulse line in Richmond, there were controversies during that about the routes and discussions about what neighborhoods are served by Pulse versus which ones are not. So there could be many, many ways in which to discuss this item in a gallery context.”
Sherry and her team had been collecting artifacts around Richmond once COVID-19 shut down most of the city in March.
Their efforts switched to collecting protest artifacts once the story of the city changed in May.
“We have been reaching out to various community contacts, have been going out into the streets in some cases and picking up signs and other items used by the protesters,” she said. “Certainly a lot of the signage about Black Lives Matter and about speaking George Floyd's name. Those I think have been very resonant. The images showing the police shooting tear gas into crowds of protesters, you know, as heartbreaking as those are, I think they really capture some of the tensions and problems that we're facing right now.”
She also mentioned the bird's eye view images of the Robert E. Lee monument tagged with graffiti and surrounded by crowds of peaceful protesters.
Historians and museum curators like Sherry live dual lives during historic times.
Not only are they living in the moment, but also trying to view events objectivity, while thinking what future historians would want to know when they look back at 2020.
“As a curator, it is very easy right now for me to see the historic impact of what's going on. We're just in unprecedented times, in many ways with the global pandemic, with the economic crisis it engendered. Certainly, some of the scenes of civil unrest and the protest against racism, that echoes past issues, but the scale of it and the tenor of it definitely feels historic and something that needs to be documented, needs to be recorded, needs to be analyzed to find its links with the past, but also, as I say, documented and recorded for future generations,” she said.
Sherry, who is white, also said it was important that a diverse group of Richmonders comes together to tell the story once it is displayed in the museum.
“As a museum, we are deeply committed to representing a diversity of histories, a diversity of voices. So we regularly reach out to members of various communities across the Commonwealth,” she said. “We are very committed to being inclusive and trying to solicit as diverse a range of community voices as we can.”
A commitment, Sherry admitted, that was not always present at the museum.
“We don't have a long history of being very inclusive for much of the life of our almost 200-year long institutional history. The Virginia Historical Society, the predecessor to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, was largely focused on telling the stories of Founding Fathers and other elite white Virginians,” she said. “Really it’s in the recent past that we've been more committed to recognizing the important contributions and the importance of telling the stories of all Virginians, not just white elite Virginians.
“So this is a process that is very much ongoing in diversifying the museum across the boards, inside the museum in terms of staff, but also in what we collect, what we present, and so forth. So, it's an ongoing process. And it's one that I think many cultural institutions across the nation are doing, rightfully so.
“From my own experience with the Determined exhibition, it takes time, it takes effort to cultivate relationships to solicit input, but it is so worthwhile, it makes our programming so much stronger by taking on the different voices and the different perspectives.”
Anyone interested in sharing their stories or artifacts with Dr. Sherry and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture can do so here.