By Jess Dankenbring, '17
In college, Meg Eastman, ’01, was surrounded by art in the classroom as an art history major and through hands-on experience with University Museums. It only made sense that she’d find a way to turn her passion into a thriving professional career. In 2006, that path led her to the Virginia Historical Society, where today she works as the digital collections manager.
“I’m the photographer. I create the images, I store the images, and I distribute the images,” she says. “I primarily focus on photography of the collection but I also handle all of the photography for our website, events, exhibitions, and publications.”
Her position has given her the opportunity to photograph hundreds of pieces in the VHS collection. Naturally, she is drawn to the photographs, particularly the museum’s collection of 40,000 glass-plate negatives from Richmond-based photographer Walter Washington Foster.
“His photographs are just so rich with detail and picturesque, a slice of people’s lives from about 1910 to 1940,” Eastman says. “And they’re just beautiful. I love any time I get to work with those.”
Others strike a more personal note. The photo above is part of the Foster collection and features members of the Crammer’s Club at Westhampton College in 1914. Eastman says, “This informal photo reminds me that despite all of the changes that happen in a century, Westhampton always delivers on the promise of friendship. This photo isn’t that different than ones of me and my roommates taken 85 years later, and it’s probably not that different than ones taken today.”
Eastman’s interest in museums took root during her time at Richmond. For her studio art and art history majors, she took courses in photography and photojournalism and studied abroad at the Studio Arts Center International in Florence, Italy, before coming back to write her senior thesis on photography. She also worked with University Museums on several projects throughout her time at Richmond. “That certainly gave me a wonderful springboard for my career in museums. I did a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and co-curated an exhibition there,” she says.
Eastman’s experience in curating and digital collections is even more vital now. The VHS closed its galleries in early 2014 while undergoing a major renovation.
“Our big exhibition, The Story of Virginia, is being completely reworked,” Eastman says. “The space was knocked down to the studs, or even beyond. It’s being totally re-imagined and re-installed and it’s going to be a whole new way of approaching Virginia history.”
During that process, her job is to photograph and digitize everything that is going to be in the new version of the exhibition. Having photos of the hundreds of items will allow them to make a web exhibition that mimics the physical exhibition and have copies of items for those that request one. She also works on the graphic and audio-visual components that will be used in the reimagined exhibition.
Eastman has photographed everything from slave registers to George Washington’s earliest land survey to Stonewall Jackson’s pocket watch. She hopes that by putting the collections online, the museum’s content will be more accessible and every exciting find in the archives can be shared virtually with everyone.
Photos courtesy of Meg Eastman, and the Virginia Historical Society.