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An Immersive Student Exhibit at University of Richmond Asks Questions About How We Store Our Media Memories 

click to enlarge A wall of disassembled VHS tapes from an immersive media exhibit at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature.

A wall of disassembled VHS tapes from an immersive media exhibit at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature.

A VHS or cassette tape needs rewinding. If a vinyl record or CD gets scratched, the sound is damaged, and both deteriorate with age. But there's something about these older forms of technology, however susceptible to flaws, that evokes a strong response. Is it a nostalgic longing for the past? A desire to hold a physical object? Or something else?

Six museum studies students and their professor, the deputy director and curator of exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums, N. Elizabeth Schlatter, investigate the allure of VHS tapes, vinyl records, photography and CDs — what some people call legacy media — in the exhibition "Downgraded and Upcycled: a Museum Studies Seminar Exhibition About Legacy Media" running through May 11.

Divided into three teams, students took on the roles of exhibition designer, publicist and educator to plan the exhibition. It centers around a re-creation of an interactive 1980s living room with a clunky, box television, movie posters from the '80s like "Back to the Future," shelves of VHS tapes and listening stations for playing vinyl records and CDs.

Visitors are invited to select and watch, for example, a movie from the 1,000 films that were donated by the university library — including Disney movies, instructional videos or documentaries. The door to the room is framed by a curtain of vinyl tape and an artistic installation of tapes is affixed to the adjacent wall.

Other interactive components include a Christmas-tree chain activity made from recycled audiotape. Prompted by the question, "What form were your original childhood photographs taken in," visitors can add a loop to a chain to indicate a vote for black and white, film, digital camera, polaroid or iPhone photo.

Sophomore Morgan Mitchell explains that the students quickly decided the exhibition needed to be multisensory because each student remembers the physicality and the labor necessary to use the older media formats. Mitchell equates VHS tapes and other legacy media to Blockbuster visits and "some of my happiest childhood memories with my family and friends."

The challenge of archiving memories is one of the bigger questions fueling the seminar and exhibition. As more people store their visual memories on apps, like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook, Schlatter notes that it is worth asking what happens to those memories when that technology platform becomes obsolete?

"Where are you storing your memories" Schlatter asks, "and how are you going to ensure that you have some form of that decades later?" S

"Downgraded and Upcycled: a Museum Studies Seminar Exhibition About Legacy Media," is on view through May 11 at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature.

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