From Then to Now: An Exhibition in Two Parts

Apr 14, 2014

Seven years ago, after the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, an outpouring of sympathy came to Blacksburg from around the world.

Much of it, in the form of objects:  candles, cards, letters, stuffed animals and works of art.  Archivists at the university have carefully cataloged and preserved these sacred objects, some of which will be on display for the first time this week.

In a show of solidarity that has become a signature of our time, spontaneous shrines sprout up after extraordinary tragedies.   After the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, the university received more than 90 thousand objects, some of which had not been opened in years.

“We wanted people to actually be able to go into the boxes to see where they’re stored but of course not have to go thru the boxes.  So we set up a place where people can actually pick up and read , which we don’t normally do in the exhibit,"  said Robin Scully Boucher, curator of the exhibit called From Then to Now at Newman Library.

Part of the exhibit highlights objects that came specifically from people in and around Blacksburg, a physical representation of the community standing together.  Boucher describes a moving piece made by Blacksburg Resident and Town Environmental Manager, Carol Davis.

"For instance we have eggs. She created an egg for each of the victims  and those have been shown every year because they have this wonderful sad correlation. They're also a sign of renewal, but she dyed them black with the name of each person on them."

The exhibit also includes hundreds of photos taken by anyone and everyone -- a crowd sourced documentation of the tragedy and its aftermath.

One of them was Ashley Maynor, then the general manager of the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg.  Maynor is working on a documentary called, “The Story of the Stuff” Boucher is using excerpts from it in the exhibit.

"She did it on super 8 camera, so it has this fragmented quality to it that makes you feel like you were very much in the moment and because its silent.  And when I saw that for the first time I had a moment where I had to take a deep breath because I saw April 16 in a new way,"she said.  

Filmmaker Ashley Maynor didn’t know she would one day make a documentary when she began filming the spontaneous shrines and memorials at Virginia Tech after the tragic shootings in 2007.  But now her work is part of an exhibition commemorating April 16th.  Robbie Harris has more.

Ashley Maynor is an award winning filmmaker based in Tennessee.  In 2007 she was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech and the General Manager of the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg.  On the morning of April 16th, she was showing a film when she heard that a student had shot and killed 32 people on campus.

Later that day, she changed the theater marquis to a condolence message.

 “Three students who volunteered at the theater were among the victims so this is something that impacted me and I think, everyone in Blacksburg.  No one was more than one or two degrees separated from losing someone. And the violation of our security and our privacy at the kind of media aftermath, was something we all went through collectively”

It was until just over a year ago that Maynor decided to make a film about the phenomenon of how we collectively mourn in the wake of tragedy and how more and more it takes the form of objects, items brought or sent in condolence. Her film is a work in progress called, “The Story of The Stuff.”

“I didn’t take on making a film about this topic lightly.  All of those expressions were sent to console and comfort us so for me even though it is a painful reminder of that terrible experience, the outpouring of support is incredible and so moving..  And I’m hoping with the film, the rest of the world will get to experience some of that for each of these terrible acts that happens, there’s far more love and caring and acts of kindness from strangers around the world.

For the film, Maynor interviewed University Archivist Tamara Kennelly who has been working to preserve the thousands of condolence items for the past seven years.

Kennelly tells Maynor she was overwhelmed, not only by the sheer volume of stuff, but by the message they collectively convey.

“That whole thing of identifying with us and sort of standing shoulder to shoulder with us in a way.. I mean that was expressed by many, many different places.  And I think there was that sense of solidarity that kind of came out of it and sort of recognition by people too that this was a power that maybe students have if they could come together in a way that they could be a positive influence for change.”

Shortly after Maynor interviewed Kennelly here in Blacksburg, the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut came like an awful refrain. She spent months there filming the very same phenomenon. Maynor says it’s become one of the ways humans grieve in this day and age.

“We live in a culture where consume a lot.  We buy things and we show affection often through giving a physical reminder of what we feel.  Whether it’s a store bought teddy bear or flowers or a hallmark card, this is evidence of our feelings and I think it’s because in the face of something incomprehensible, we don’t know what to do.

Excerpts from Ashley Maynor’s “The Story of the Stuff” are being shown at an exhibit this week at the Newman Library on the Virginia Tech campus called, “From Then to Now: About April 16.