Living Museum 

A new exhibit of Church Hill photos at the Valentine puts stories with places.

click to enlarge VCU students Maggie O’Connor and Stephen Casanova work with a Church Hill Academy high school student Robert Brickell on the Made in Church Hill history project.

Michael Lease

VCU students Maggie O’Connor and Stephen Casanova work with a Church Hill Academy high school student Robert Brickell on the Made in Church Hill history project.

Atysheyona Nash has fond memories of growing up in Church Hill. The 16-year-old lived there until fifth grade, but even after moving away she continued to walk to her grandmother’s house there.

“Everyone in her neighborhood calls us their grandkids because we’re over there so much,” she says. “Some people think Church Hill is a bad neighborhood, but after school, I can go outside to the park and see people I know. Last week I took a walk through Oakwood Cemetery with my friends. I have friends who go to TJ [Thomas Jefferson High School] now who come back over here every day. Church Hill is a really nice neighborhood.”

Nash is working on a history harvest project that’s being used to create a multimedia exhibition titled “Made in Church Hill,” opening at the Valentine’s new community galleries.

“When I take pictures,” Nash says, “I notice things like how the light shines through those trees up there down onto the alley.” She points to the filtered light on the gravel nearby.

The project is the result of collaboration among high-school students like Nash from Church Hill Academy and undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond.

As part of the course Social Practice in the Museum, students from VCU’s departments of photography and film worked with high-school students to teach photography and descriptive writing skills. Every week, the college students walked from campus to Church Hill to meet with students as a way to physically link the area that the students knew with the community that was the focus of their project. Several of them knew nothing more of the area than Proper Pie Co. and Libbie Hill Park.

The younger students paired off with college students to learn how to use cameras and they began photographing Church Hill. Subject matter was at their discretion. Some set about documenting neighbors and buildings while others sought out more evocative shots.

After weeks of capturing the neighborhood visually, it was time for the history harvest, held on a sunny Saturday in October at the East District Resource Center. Teams spent the day greeting, photographing and collecting oral histories from Church Hill residents who stopped by. “It’s a cool way to learn about the area because I’m from Wisconsin,” UR student Hayley Gray-Hoehn says. “I’m learning a more detailed history that’s alive.”

Excerpts of the oral histories will be paired with portraits of the interviewees for the Valentine exhibition, along with audio clips of field recordings taken by the students and worked into a soundtrack by local artist Vaughn Garland. 

Chuck Wrenn, creator of High on the Hog, allowed his memories of early Libbie Hill festivals to be recorded. A teacher and 40-year resident of Church Hill shared her story about how, in purchasing her home, she displaced the two families who’d lived there for years.
UR professor Laura Browder, who taught a course in civil rights that resulted in a documentary play, says she was looking to do something different this year.

“I saw this as a way to connect our students and academy students with their own neighborhood that they’re unfamiliar with,” she says. Students also did archival research at the Valentine to further their understanding.

“It’s important for the students to learn that their voices will be heard,” says Traci Garland, the gallery coordinator at VCU Anderson Gallery and part of the team responsible for the semester-long course. “It’s important because all this is for the Valentine. We want the students to know that museums do function as part of a community.”

It’s also an opportunity for the newly revamped Valentine to further its mission. The exhibit offers a locally relevant topic in which community members contribute to the exhibit’s content — providing perspectives beyond those of curators. S

“Made in Church Hill” opens at the Valentine on Jan. 22 with a reception from 6-8 p.m. The exhibit runs from Jan. 22 to June 28.


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