Mackenzie Meleski, Contributing Writer
Richmond residents are now able to get an in-depth look at the history of the city through the landmarks that define them. The new app, “Monumental Conversations,” allows community members to get a spoken history of the city they live in.
Sponsored by a few museums throughout the city, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the app’s initial purpose was to explain the history behind the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, according to Grady Hart, a spokesperson from Richmond Public Schools Community Partnerships.
The app developers decided to limit the focus on Confederate monuments and instead tell stories of Black resilience upon discussion with community members and historians.
“We asked the Black community what stories they wanted to see in the app,” Hart said. “It was not our story to tell, but we would provide the coordination and development.”
Development of the app was put on pause at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, according to Hart. While production was down, Black Lives Matter protests took place in Richmond, resulting in the removal of many of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
When production on the app restarted in August 2020, the public opinion of Monument Avenue had changed, prompting the committee to decide to reevaluate the app’s focus.
“Black resilience has been an untold story over the course of our country’s history,” said app developer Julia Beabout. “Our goal was to elevate the voices of those that have been unheard on a systemic level.”
The app takes users on a guided tour of Monument Avenue. QR codes are placed at the site of the statues and users scan them to listen to stories about the history of the statues and of Black resilience during the Civil War era. The tour is approximately 1.2 miles long and starts at the VMFA and ends at the former site of the Robert E. Lee statue.
The app, which has been in development since December 2019, was funded by a $10,000 grant given by the U.S. State Department, according to Beabout and Hart. It was designed to be used by Richmond Public Schools as well as locals looking to learn more about Richmond’s history.
The app’s development was a collaboration between RPS, local museums, local historians and community members, according to the app’s website. The museums involved were the VMFA, the Black History Museum and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. These groups formed a committee to ensure the app’s information was accurate.
“It was a community-driven process from the very beginning,” Hart said.
RPS teachers, students and families played a role in the app’s development, Hart said. Teachers were consulted on how they would like to see the history curriculum be refocused. Students taking a Richmond history course were also asked to contribute to the app.
Five groups of students designed their own monuments based on how they view the future of Richmond. A student-designed statue featured on the app was of two young girls, one Black and one white, holding hands. The app developers said that they hope to feature more student monument designs in the future.
“We wanted to give students the opportunity to tell their own stories and share their ideas,” Hart said. “They are the future of Richmond.”
On Sept. 12, people gathered outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to mark the launch of this new software that gives an augmented reality tour of Monument Avenue.
Present at the event were RPS superintendent Jason Kamras, representatives from Richmond’s museums, the developers and collaborators who created the app and members of the community.
The event took place just four days after the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
“It’s about telling the full history of Richmond,” Kamras said at the event. “The good, the bad and the ugly.”
Future plans for the app include adding new student-designed monuments and expanding the virtual reality tour to other areas in Richmond, including Jackson Ward.
Audio on the app was also community oriented. RPS students were asked to narrate the stories on the app. Also featured are local activists such as 2019 National Teacher of the Year winner Rodney Robinson. Robinson was a social studies teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center and a VCU alumnus, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Beabout said that she believes the app, which is free and self-guided, has the potential to be expanded. Although it is currently only used in the RPS curriculum, they believe it can eventually be included in other schools outside of Richmond.
Hart said he sees it as a useful tool for VCU students. The app will reach the App Store and Google Play store, for Apple and Android products respectively, by the end of September. The developers hope to expand its outreach afterward.
“We intentionally designed it for anyone, including national and international visitors, to learn about Richmond’s history,” Beabout said.