A new interactive exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is designed to take viewers beneath the surface, both in art and in life.
“A Closer Look,” which opened May 1 in the Memorial Foundation for Children Interactive Gallery, focuses on identity, using six artworks from the museum’s collection to explore themes of family, ancestors, power and self-representation. The reproductions allow visitors to use magnifying glasses for close inspection; panels attached to the reproductions enlarge specific areas and can be opened for more information.
The exhibition also includes two touch-screen video displays that showcase the history of the museum’s grounds, noting its past as home to enslaved Black people as well as former Confederate soldiers. The video uses old photographs and voice-over narration developed and provided by Hidden in Plain Site (HiPS), a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to exploring unseen — and often forgotten — local history and presenting it through interactive experiences.
The whole point is to provide a deeper perspective, says VMFA Director of Education Celeste Fetta.
“We want people to go beyond their first glance [with each artwork],” she says. “We want people to think about the artist’s intent, the story behind the work, about identity and representation.”
The exhibition allows people to see what specific areas of the city looked like decades ago via HiPS’ website or virtual reality headsets. HiPS focused first on Richmond, yielding a 16- to 20-minute presentation that is free and available at the organization’s offices, located near the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in Shockoe Bottom.
HiPS co-founder J. Dontrese Brown says his organization’s partnership with VMFA is a natural fit.
“We are all about telling stories that folks miss just by taking a quick glance and not understanding the context and content,” he says.
Brown and partners Dean Browell and David Waltenbaugh founded HiPS in June 2020 with the goal of telling untold stories of marginalized people in Richmond, especially Black residents.
Brown recalls an early meeting with VMFA Deputy Director for Art & Education Michael Taylor, who quickly sent other staff, including Fetta, to explore what HiPS was doing.
“We all agreed a partnership could and should happen,” Brown says. “We’re so thankful for Celeste and the VMFA for their confidence and the will and the understanding to talk about those conversations that some folks are afraid to have.”
VMFA’s website details the long history of the museum site, including its original Powhatan occupants, who have recently been acknowledged with a marker on the property. Owned for generations by the Byrd family — William Byrd II is credited for laying out the city of Richmond — the land eventually was purchased by the Robinson family, who brought enslaved workers to their summer estate. The restored house now serves as a regional tourism center and holds museum office space.
Following the Civil War, the land was sold to a private organization that created the R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers’ Home, providing a residential retirement facility for Confederate veterans. A nondenominational house of worship, the Confederate Memorial Chapel, remains on the grounds and is owned and maintained by VMFA.
The site’s Confederate history is recounted in the touch-screen offerings as well as the VR experience that will be available through headsets on Family Days and other occasions. The inclusion of the post-Civil War narrative is intentional, Fetta says, noting that early content drafts were reviewed by community members who saw that part of the story as essential. “In order to tell the arc [of change], you can’t leave it out,” she says.
Brown agrees. “There are hard topics that have to be covered, and we want to make sure we’re covering them,” he says. “We don’t want to sit here and harp on slavery and segregation, although we do talk about that. It’s more about the push and pull: Here’s how bad it was, look at where we’re going now.”
One of the benefits of VR technology, Brown says, is that it appeals to younger generations, who then share it with their parents and grandparents. “It’s multigenerational learning that leads to conversations,” he says.
Brown and Fetta agree that education is central to the experience of “A Closer Look.”
“VMFA is an educational institution, and its mission is to enrich the lives of all through art,” Fetta says. “Art is an open door to learning about a myriad of other things — history, social change and more. Looking at art is not only about the experience of seeing; we hope that the visitor goes beyond what they see to learn more about the artist, the subject of the art and its context, and how all of those things intersect with the viewer’s life and ideas.”
“This isn’t an in-depth history lesson,” Brown says, “but we’re hoping people will engage in deeper conversations and research, and look at the site differently.”