A medal. A mold to make violins. A set of metal dishes. A faded family photograph. These objects tell the story of nearly 800 Jews from the Former Soviet Union who immigrated to Richmond in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Now it’s up to 10 students in the Seminar on Museum Studies to figure out how to tell it.
It’s not as simple as placing objects in a case. As the students read in one of the class’ primary texts, there’s a burgeoning idea that perhaps the role of a museum is larger than preserving and presenting objects to a visiting public. Instead, this new museum theory posits that everything from the objects selected to the text that’s printed, from the color of the walls to the lighting in the room, carries weight and can affect a visitor’s interpretation of the information.
“There’s this self-critical movement within museums,” says Elizabeth Schlatter, deputy director and curator of exhibitions at University Museums and one of the course’s three instructors. “It’s almost this meta examination of what museums are doing and the responsibilities museums have in the community.”
To get a glimpse of this theory in practice, the class spent the early part of the semester visiting local museums, such as Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, a Richmond Jewish history museum affiliated with a local synagogue, and the Virginia Holocaust Museum. They observed the presentation of these museums’ collections and reflected on their own experiences as visitors.
They also studied three campus museum venues — the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, Carole Weinstein International Center Gallery, and the UR Downtown Wilton Companies Gallery — to evaluate what each space had to offer for their own exhibition. Unlike typical exhibitions, where items are housed in a single space, the class had to find a way to make each venue tell an independent story, while still interacting with the others to present a complete picture.
“It’s really fun to imagine in your mind,” says Veronica Shreve, ’14. “The way the room is laid out, how we can take the visitors through the story this way, things like that.”
Then came the hard part. The campus opening is the launch event for a yearlong series of programming leading up to the premiere of Draw Back the Curtain, a documentary film produced by students, alumni and community members, in collaboration with Jewish Family Services and University of Richmond Hillel. In addition to the handful of objects and photographs offered up for the exhibition, hours of interview footage show immigrants and volunteers telling their stories of resettlement in Richmond. The class had to sift through and identify the stories and experiences that best represented the collective group, as well as the connection between words and objects.
Andrew Jones, ’14, describes it as a balancing act. “We have to straddle the line between trying to describe the entire fourth wave [of Soviet immigration] and all these different factors that went into why they left, and also making sure that we pay particular attention to the individual stories. Because we don’t want to overlook the pieces in favor of the whole.”
They’ll have a chance to check their work in an unusual way. Some of the émigrés and volunteers have visited the class, and even more could be among the attendees when the exhibition opens Dec. 6 — a prospect that’s both nerve-wracking and instills an added layer of accountability.
“People want their stories told in all of their complexity,” says Laura Browder, professor of American Studies and one of the course’s instructors. “They don’t necessarily want a white wash. A lot of the immigrants who came here were doctors or rocket scientists or some other very elevated profession back in the Soviet Union. They come here, they don’t speak the language, and they never really regain their professional identity. These immigrants have been through a lot, and I think they’d want that to show.”
Watch the museum studies students as they work together to produce the exhibition.