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  • Ettienne LeFebre

Monument Avenue: AR Technology and Confederate Monument History

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


Monument Avenue is the well-known street in Richmond, Virginia that used to be the site of six statues, including five dedicated to Confederate military and political figures. The five Confederate statues were erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were removed during and after the George Floyd protests in 2020 and 2021. The Confederate statues have been a source of controversy at different periods of time due to their perpetuation of “Lost Cause” ideology in the South. After the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, they came under increased scrutiny. During protests in June 2020, protestors toppled the monument of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and in July all but the Robert E. Lee statue were removed in response to public outcry calling for their removal. For a time the Lee statue became a place of gathering for activists, as protestors transformed the base of the monument into a graffiti art piece supporting Black Lives Matter and the fight against police brutality of marginalized people. The Lee statue was removed in June 2021.


EIN Presswire, “Monument Avenue AR tour group leader in front of the graffitied Robert E. Lee Memorial,” https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/543823535/valentine-museum-artglass-deploy-first-wearable-augmented-reality-tour-to-address-confederate-monuments-controversy.

Before the removal of the Confederate statues, some people expressed concern that if the statues were removed people would be “erasing history.” While they were ultimately removed due to their undeniable ties to white supremacist ideology; state officials, city officials, and public historians moved to develop new interpretive strategies to ensure that people would be able to learn about the history of the statues, including their origins decades after the Civil War as a vehicle to perpetuate the Lost Cause. The Valentine Museum and the company ARTglass collaborated to make this idea a reality through the use of augmented reality (AR) technology on Monument Avenue to create an interactive tour to interpret the monuments.


WWBT, ““Participants in the Monument Avenue VR Tour,” https://www.nbc12.com/2021/06/15/valentine-museum-debuts-walkable-monument-ave-tour-with-smartglasses/.

The AR equipment allows users to wear a simple headset with transparent smart glasses that display 3-D models, images, and text alongside the present day scenery. Users activate the content by pressing a button on a remote attached to their smart glasses, and some stops include historic audio recordings. Examples of images shown are the burning of Richmond by the Confederates, the erection of the statues, and their removal in the early 2020s. The AR tour provides historic context for why the statues were erected and allows residents and visitors to better understand how the statues became white supremacist symbols. The 90-minute AR tour provides users with a rich historic experience, full of primary source pictures, text, and audio; in an immersive manner that takes them out of the museum and into the landscape.


Even though the statues are not physically on Monument Avenue anymore, visiting the street and viewing the AR picture overlays of the statues will allow future users, who may not have witnessed the statutes in-situ, to comprehend their commanding presence along the avenue. and the white supremist messages they conveyed.


WTVR CBS 6, “Monument Avenue AR Tour Image,” December 3, 2020.

The Monument Avenue AR tour in Richmond, Virginia represents a new mode of historic interpretation during the current reckoning America is having with its history of racial injustice. The removal of Confederate statues from public places has been highly debated, especially since the 2020 George Floyd protests, and often people do not have the background information about the origin and meaning of these monuments to decide for themselves if their removal equates to "erasing history" or promoting racial and social justice. The AR tour on Monument Avenue gives people the ability to understand the white supremacist reasons the statues were built, and provides a means to ensure that the historic context is not lost with their removal from the avenue. In fact, in some ways, the removal of the statues has made them more visible than ever, by presenting the complexities of their origin and meaning. AR technology provides a tangible way to interpret the history of a site where its physical elements have been removed, engaging visitors in new interpretations of history through a contemporary lens.


About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


ARtGlass. “Valentine Museum & ARtGlass Deploy First Wearable Augmented Reality Tour to Address Confederate Monuments Controversy.” EIN Presswire. June 15, 2021. https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/543823535/valentine-museum-artglass-deploy-first-wearable-augmented-reality-tour-to-address-confederate-monuments-controversy.


Eason, Hannah. "Valentine Museum debuts walkable Monument Avenue tour with smartglasses." WWBT. June 15, 2021. https://www.nbc12.com/2021/06/15/valentine-museum-debuts-walkable-monument-ave-tour-with-smartglasses/.


Kuta, Sarah. “Richmond Removes Its Last City-Owned Confederate Monument.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 15, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/richmond-removes-its-last-city-owned-confederate-monument-180981289/.


“Monument Avenue: Origins and Reverberations.” ARtGlass Group. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://artglassgroup.com/Work/monument-avenue-origins-and-reverberations/.


“New augmented reality tour tells story of Monument Avenue.” CBS 6 Richmond. Last updated December 3, 2020. https://www.wtvr.com/our-rva/new-augmented-reality-tour-tells-the-story-of-monument-avenue.


“The Valentine Partners with ARtGlass for Richmond’s First Wearable Augmented Reality Tours.” The Valentine. June 15, 2021. https://thevalentine.org/the-valentine-partners-with-artglass-for-richmonds-first-wearable-augmented-reality-tours/.


WTVR CBS 6. “New augmented reality tour tells the history of Monument Avenue.” YouTube. December 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfbYIOpAFbM.


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