Everyman His Own Historian, and Filmmaker, and Urban Planner…

Last fall, Floricane’s John Sarvay casually asked whether the Library of Virginia could supply a staff member who knew something about Richmond for a project he was planning. I distinctly recall the Librarian of Virginia quickly pointing my way. I had just been volunteered, but no problem. After all, I’ve spoken hundreds of times on Richmond and spilled copious ink describing the twists and turns of the cit y’s celebrated and at times tortured past. Piece of cake.

In preparation, I reviewed an entry on Richmond that I had written years ago for the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. I then did what everyone else (the 99.99999%) would do -- I googled the Wikipedia entry on Richmond. Duly ar med with the “official” and the crowd-sourced versions, I ambled out onto Broad Street for the short walk to the Valentine Richmond History Center for our first meeting.

The gathering opened haltingly, as our hosts pressed us for new ways to engage our audience. This was not intended to be the top-down, voice-of-God, Ken Burns THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT style of history telling, but a meaningful and active engagement with the participants.

I thought about Wikipedia’s “Richmond.” Could we crowd source the city’s story at an event? The ideas began to flow.

Christy Coleman, director of the American Civil War Center, wondered if groups could create their own Richmond timelines; what if folks created their own personal maps of Richmond and assembled those into a collaborative cityscape?  Bill Martin of the Valentine Richmond History Center wonder if a call could go out for aspiring filmmakers to document their city? The ideas were limitless.

And out of those ideas came a four-part series of interactive history events centered on the ways Richmond tells its stories, and the changes that have shaped those stories. “RIC/RVA: 400 Years of Revolution, Innovation and Change in Richmond” engaged several hundred people in unique, and very personal, storytelling.

At the first event at the Library of Virginia, I was struck by the wide range of ages in the crowd. As I circulated, sipping wine and chatting up my audience, aspects of this age difference became apparent. Older attendees asked about the “lecture,” while younger people simply assumed this would be an interactive experience.  As striking was the number of folks in attendance who had called Richmond home for only few years -- or less.

Christy and I passed out a deck of cards emblazoned with images and descriptions of key events spanning the breadth of Richmond’s history: riots, disasters, momentous meetings, political chicanery, and cultural milestones -- the good, bad, and the ugly. Groups would take ten of those cards and create a narrative with a “wild card” event of their choosing. They were now the storytellers.

We watched as people swapped ideas and argued themes to create their story. With event lists plastered to the walls, everyone joining together to interpret the broad patterns. There was no single “Richmond.” One was racked by conflict -- bus boycotts, bread riots, political strife, and rebellions. Another focused on culture and arts, a story of creativity. Others focused on Richmond “firsts,” the economy, immigrants, and so forth. Finally, groups sat down with volunteer designers to create posters that encapsulated the narrative ideas. Each subsequent session strove to achieve the same degree of interactivity and engagement.

RIC/RVA reaffirmed my belief that Richmond is undergoing a dramatic transformation in its collective zeitgeist and self-image.

The passion for and innovative thinking about the city that I witnessed in these sessions, often displayed by people who were relatively new to the community, was awe-inspiring. When I first arrived in Richmond more than twenty-five years ago, the city’s history was as a much a weight that dragged us down as it was an inspiration. Today, people look at the past not just as posterity but in search of possibilities. That is an enormous change.

The event also taught me lessons about my primary craft: Public History.  It demonstrated that an innovative, team approach can make history exciting and relevant to a much younger audience than most historical institutions currently enjoy. Success will come if we truly engage people in the real work of history making rather than in the memorization of rote knowledge.

Oh, and I still want to re-write Richmond’s Wikipedia entry by way of a wiki-thon with the public.


Gregg Kimball is Director of Public Services and Outreach for the Library of Virginia. The Library of Virginia was an organizing partner in the RIC/RVA series, along with the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, i.e.*, the Valentine Richmond History Center and Floricane.