UVA Board Endorses Plan for Digital Contextualization of Statues, Memorials

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Last September, the Board of Visitors approved several changes to UVA’s historic landscape, including a recommendation to contextualize the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north side of the Rotunda.

On Tuesday, the University took another step forward in the effort to provide additional historical context to the Jefferson statue and other statues and memorials on Grounds when it voted to establish a working group to develop digital historical contextualization for them.

UVA President Jim Ryan told board members that he had suggested the approach of digital contextualization to the Naming and Memorials Committee – established by Ryan earlier this year – as a way of better understanding UVA’s historic landscape.

“This effort will help us tell a more complete and accurate story of the University of Virginia,” Ryan said. “It aligns with and supports our mission as an institution of education, and I believe it will give people another way to engage with UVA’s history and to explore its richness and its complexities. I’m grateful for the work of the Naming and Memorials Committee and for the support of the Board of Visitors.”

The working group will include professional historians, students, local residents, and alumni with relevant experience. Its work will include creating “a digitally-enabled narrative” that presents a balanced and robust history of the subject of each statue or memorial, as well as the sculptor, and the historical context around its commission and placement on Grounds.

In a memo outlining the recommendation, the Naming and Memorials Committee envisions that the contextualizations could be accessed via digital QR codes, which are barcodes that provide links to information on mobile phones or other digital devices, or via related technology. The digital format permits multi-layered storytelling and detail that isn’t possible in a static format such as signage or a supplemental plaque ­– and allows the information to be augmented as new research or scholarship is gathered.

The committee said it applauds plans to add select markers to commemorate the Black Bus Stop, the Ginger Scott Case and the Coat and Tie Rebellion, for example, but believes that the number of statues and memorials on Grounds doesn’t make markers a practical tool for the depth of contextualization the committee envisions.

The committee’s recommendation states that the “overriding purpose of contextualization should be to provide an ever-contemporary and robust context to our environment, not to suggest a particular perspective, but to afford a balanced and fulsome experience, enabling all who visit our Grounds to develop their own informed perspective.”

Committee chair Michael Suarez, English professor and director of the Rare Book School, said the committee’s recommendation is based in part on a belief that presenting a more comprehensive history, which does not avoid contentious issues or difficult questions, will promote healing and strengthen the community.

“The statues and memorials on our Grounds are fixed in place physically, but our knowledge about them and the history they represent is in near-constant motion,” Suarez said of the task. “We believe it’s important to explore this context, make it accessible, and inspire people to engage with one another in ways that build understanding and advance the common good.”

In its memo of recommendations, the committee writes to Ryan: “We believe that, through digital contextualization, the University can best encourage both residents and visitors to think more deeply, not only about particular memorials, but also about the cultures that created them and about the changing nature of public memory and commemoration across decades and generations. In doing so we hope to occasion in those who walk these Grounds a greater sense of the past and why it matters today.”

Rector James B. Murray and fellow Board members applauded the recommendation at their virtual meeting on Tuesday.

“Few universities in America have histories as deep and textured as the University of Virginia. Telling this story as completely as possible is part of the responsibility of being at a remarkable place like UVA,” Murray said. “Creating a digital contextualization of our statues and memorials gives us a tool for this work that is accessible, flexible, and respectful of the built environment.”

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