Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The symbology of flags

Symbology is the study of symbols within cultural contexts. Modern symbols with which we are familiar are the bald eagle representing the United States, an olive branch representing peace, or a heart representing love. To a larger degree, we employ symbols in the flags that identify our state. Virginia's flag, for example, shows a soldier -- a woman -- standing with her foot on the slain body of a monarch who has lost his crown. The woman, according to the Code of Virginia, is "Virtus the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon." She represents the Roman virtue, Virtus, carrying connotations of valor and courage. The fallen man is Tyranny, representing the Tyrannical Great Britain felled, in part, by Virginia -- notice the man's crown on the ground nearby. Virtus also carries a spear, pointed down into the ground, and a sword, still sheathed, representing authority.

Virginia adopted this flag in 1861 at the beginning of the American Civil War. At the same time, the fledgling Confederate States of America began searching for a flag of their own. General P.G.T. Beauregard proposed an idea for two different flags, one for peace or parades, and one for war or the battlefield. A number of different flags for the various seceded states, and even regimental flags created confusion on the battlefield. Early Confederate battle flags so closely resembled the United States flag, especially in colors, that they could be indistinguishable from one another at a distance.

The flag we know today as the Confederate flag, or Confederate battle flag was never truly used to represent the Confederate states as a nation. It is a blend of elements from Confederate battle flags and Naval Jacks that has come to represent the Confederacy, and the South at large.

Its color elements, a very familiar red, white, and blue originate in the flag of the United States of America. Immediately following secession, there was a great deal of public support for keeping the old US flag, at least in some capacity. The colors remained in use throughout the Confederacy's short history. The number of stars, 13 in all, represent the eleven states of the Confederacy, and two stars to represent Missouri and Kentucky which later joined the Confederacy in disputed agreements. The crossing blue bars form a St. Andrew's cross, also called a saltire, in the shape of an X. This is supposedly the type of cross upon which St. Andrew was crucified. Curiously, there seems to be no specific association between St. Andrew and the Confederacy; it may simply have been an aesthetic choice.

The Confederate flag today carries a complex mix of connotations, ranging from pride and heritage to racism and hate. It means different things to different people, to be sure.

This Saturday, Riddick's Folly will host Abolitionists' Museum, a theatrical work featuring eight historical abolitionists debating the subject of what we call the Confederate flag. It's worth noting that some of these eight figures did not live to even see the flag, and that the others did not live to see it become the somewhat controversial symbol that it has become. In this context, their thoughts seem out of place, or even irrelevant. However, the play, which uses large portions of the characters' writings or speeches, offers them a chance to tell their story in our time, and to offer what thoughts they may have had on this symbol, should they be alive today. A post-show discussion with the audience will follow the performances, allowing an exchange of ideas and a thoughtful dialogue on a subject with no real "right" or "wrong" answers.

Abolitionists' Museum takes place on Saturday, February 21st with performances at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm at Riddick's Folly.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Some years ago, when restoration first began on Riddick's Folly, paint scrapings were taken for analysis in the house's front parlor. The tests indicated that the oldest of the numerous layers of paint was "Prussian Blue," sometimes called "Berlin Blue." If you're wondering, it looks closest to this color. While the restoration of the parlor utilized a different color scheme, it did reveal a lot about interior decorating of the early 19th century.

One of the more intriguing things we see is that little to no attention was paid to coordinating the various colors in a room, no less from one room to another. The Prussian Blue found in the door molding was probably different from the paint, which would have been different from the furniture upholstery, different from any rugs, and so on. It seems that our careful coordination of pleasing color combinations may have been a bit hasty.

Though the expense will prohibit us from correcting this any time soon, we do have another trick we can play. A fairly common practice of the time period was to paint not just the walls and molding, but also the ceiling. Specifically, the crown molding would often be a shade half as light as the walls, and the ceiling would then be half as light as that. With the prominent white plaster medallion in the front parlor, adding this touch of color would make it rather impressive.

Taking inspiration from the capital improvements underway at Riddick's Folly, we would like to incorporate the new paint scheme as soon as possible. If it sounds expensive, it can be. If you'd like to contribute (hint, hint) toward the painting, please contact the museum office. That would help a lot.

Otherwise, stay tuned for updates on this, as well as our other continuing restoration work.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Taking Stock in the Law Office

Riddick's Folly recently received a gift of stock in memory of George Taylor Everett. This gift, of more than $25,000, was to remember Mr. Everett's interest in what is now the Nathaniel Riddick Law Office (the small, white building in the photo).

This building, however, was not always here. Neither did it belong to Nathaniel Riddick. The office formerly belonged to Dr. Robert Copeland Everett, an ancestor of Mr. George Everett.

Dr. Everett used this building as an office for his medical practice located several miles from Riddick's Folly. He likely used it around the time that Nathaniel Riddick used his own law office of similar size and detail.

When Nathaniel Riddick passed away in 1882, the law office served no purpose and it was torn down soon thereafter. More than a century would pass before another building would occupy that space.

In 2004, Dr. Everett's office was recovered and relocated to Riddick's Folly. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of research and work transformed the doctor's office into a law office. Today this building serves as a host facility for lecturers, workshops, and meetings.

This gift of stock came to Riddick's Folly in memory of a man whose interest in the building helped to keep it and preserve it. As such, a portion of the gift will be set aside for its on-going maintenance and improvement.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Riddick's Folly is in the midst of a capital improvement project, consisting of five repair and restoration tasks being performed by the Phoenix Corporation of Newport News. This project carries a price tag of $135,000, footed entirely by the tax-payers of the City of Suffolk. That we are grateful for this should go without saying, but we'll say it anyway. We're grateful.

It gets me thinking about the two-way responsibility of a museum to its community, and vice-versa. We hold objects, documents, funds, and even the building itself in the public trust. These items may legally belong to us, but morally and practically, they belong to our community. Riddick's Folly is not just a well-decorated club house for the staff and volunteers; it's a functional place where people can come to learn about their history and their community's history.

In exchange, the people should take ownership in Riddick's Folly. This is their history, and they each have a hand in maintaining it, interpreting it, and preserving it for others. Some are more active than others, of course. Some become members of the museum; others volunteer their time; still others serve on the museum's Board of Directors. And for those who don't do any of those things, they still have a role in supporting the museum and in shaping its purpose.

Their local tax dollars help to fund our operations, and from time to time, they fund the necessary improvements to the building that keep it safe and sound. Their visits to the museum with friends or family help to spread the word about what we do. Conversely, if they don't visit, it tells us that what we're doing is either not appealing, or not publicized enough. And so we adapt.

Our improvement project will hang new shutters around the building, shore up the masonry, install new gutters (long overdue!), apply new paint to the peeling and cracking exterior, provide new storm windows, and help to repair and maintain our air handling systems. $135,000 goes quickly!