The Collegian
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Student-curated exhibition explores Richmond’s history with tobacco

<p>Picture courtesy of Alexandra Byrum</p>

Picture courtesy of Alexandra Byrum

University of Richmond students in the American studies program launched an online exhibition that explores the city of Richmond’s history with tobacco from the 17th century to the present day.

The exhibition was created by 10 students as a part of a biannual American studies capstone seminar led by Nicole Sackley, professor of American studies, and Alexandra Byrum, assistant director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

The exhibition explores how tobacco has molded the city of Richmond’s culture, identity, economy and landscape, according to a University of Richmond press release on May 11.

By exploring public advertisements, postcards and storefronts, the exhibition shares both the filtered, or the more well-known history of tobacco in the city of Richmond, and unfiltered, or stories that expose slavery in Richmond, worker resistance, southern agriculture and gentrification, Sackley said. 

“We wanted to go with this filtered versus unfiltered approach to show two sides of tobacco in Richmond,” said Joanna Hejl, a '20 graduate who helped curate the exhibition. “The filtered side shows all the things that people typically associate with tobacco in Richmond, such as walking along Tobacco Row or going to the Tobacco Company restaurant, while the unfiltered side tells the human stories of how people have interacted with Richmond’s tobacco industry.” 

Sackley said that the capstone project brought American studies-- along with its focus on public-facing work-- to life by allowing students to delve into Richmond’s history. Although the seminar usually culminates with an in-person exhibition at UR Downtown, the exhibition was moved to an online format after in-person classes were canceled because of COVID-19, Sackley said.

“The students had a strong commitment to the project,” Sackley said. “We had come three-fourths of the way to a gallery exhibition and didn’t want to just drop it all. There was a real group consensus to push forward. I can speak for myself in saying that the project had a real sense of meaning, creating something tangible and important in a moment that is existentially difficult."

The 10 students were divided up into communications, web design and exhibition design teams, Sackley said. When UR switched to remote learning, students quickly had to pivot and learn WordPress, story mapping and remote project management, she said.

“Curating an exhibit is such a unique opportunity,” said rising senior Rowan Cai, who helped curate the exhibit. “Growing up in Richmond, I think there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding tobacco in Richmond, and I was so fascinated to explore more about how the commodity really plays with the landscape of Richmond.”

Rising senior Mysia Perry also worked on the exhibition and said the curatorial work aligned with her future career interests, calling the opportunity a stepping stone to possible future work in the public-facing realm.  Perry's portion of the exhibition highlights the connections between the city of Richmond’s slave trail and its history of tobacco, a connection which she said is crucial to the cities history. 

Sackley was surprised by UR’s own involvement with tobacco, a relationship that was once obvious with “Tobacco Princesses” and Cigarette advertisements in the Collegian, but still exists in more subtle ways, such as scholarships provided by Altria, a global tobacco producer based out of Richmond, and cigarette sales on campus, she said.

The online exhibition will not replace an in-person one, however. Sackley and Byrum said they would be helping the students open an in-person exhibition at UR Downtown on Sept. 4, 2020, at RVA First Fridays.

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