Echoes of Reflection: Exploring Pavilion X Exhibit's Enduring Impact

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The University of Virginia's Lawn and its Academical Village transcend time, marking a place where history and the present seamlessly intertwine. 

Within the walls of Pavilion X, one of the ten original neoclassical faculty residences that line the Lawn, a powerful exhibition confronts visitors with the complexities of the past. Launched in 2022, this thought-provoking display challenges viewers to delve deeper into the often-overlooked truths that shaped the very bricks of the university's iconic Academical Village. Two years later, the exhibition's message remains as powerful and relevant as ever.

"I think it's possible for many of us to absorb only a superficial history of things when we walk through a city or a town or university," Ian Solomon, Dean of UVA's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy shared in a recent interview. The Pavilion X exhibit aims to counter that lack of depth, inviting the university and Charlottesville community to learn the history and confront oft-neglected stories of enslaved laborers who lived and labored there. 

For Solomon, who has lived in the Pavilion with his family for the last four years, being part of the building's historical fabric has made the prospect of bringing its history to the forefront a deeply personal endeavor.

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The exhibit, commissioned by Solomon, thoughtfully weaves together lesser-known stories, uncovering the intricate layers underpinning UVA's founding and early years. Visitors learn about enslaved laborers like Fannie Gillette Hern, who was purchased alongside her infant child by UVA Medical Professor Robley Dunglison and brought to labor in his household at Pavilion X following Jefferson's death in 1826. The exhibit also highlights the stories of 'Old Sam' and 'Young Sam,' enslaved carpenters who helped build several pavilions on the Lawn.

Visitors are also confronted by the legacies of former residents such as John Minor, a prominent law professor who fiercely advocated for slavery's preservation.

"It tries to do what I think is our job," Solomon explained, "which is to get people to learn more, and think more and reflect more on history and facts, evidence, and truth."

Living in Pavilion X has given Solomon and his family the opportunity to understand and engage with the history of those who came before them. "We need to have the courage to acknowledge the truth about slavery in UVA's history and how it might have affected the people whose history has been ignored or forgotten or erased," Solomon reflected.

In commissioning this exhibit, Solomon hoped to catalyze vital conversations and foster introspection, reflection and debate about the complex human experience that shaped UVA. His vision has borne fruit, sparking dialogue among students, parents, and even prospective Batten faculty and staff who have come to his home to visit the display.

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The impact of the Pavilion X exhibit has extended far beyond its physical walls. Inspired by its example, the Center for Teaching Excellence commissioned a historical exhibit to share the experiences of the enslaved individuals who worked in Hotel D, one of the buildings on the university's Range that served as the dining halls for students as well as residences of hotelkeepers and their families. This new exhibit invites viewers to learn more about a typical workday for the enslaved individuals and the abuse they endured. It also touches on hotel design and function, and the garden workyards.

Building upon foundational work to uncover and engage with UVA's complex histories, the Pavilion X exhibit is part of a larger effort to confront and better understand the past. As Solomon noted, the investments made by former UVA President Teresa Sullivan "to start to have the courage to start gathering the facts and telling the stories" paved the way. This mirrored efforts at Monticello to confront narratives like that of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had several children with Thomas Jefferson, a story that was once suppressed. "We've had a period in the last decade of being willing to not just have a hagiography of Jefferson," Solomon noted. "But actually, let's look at the man, let's look at the people, we don't need to condemn them. Let's actually look at the facts of their lives and think about the trade offs they made, the contradictions they may have exhibited, to try to understand why they made those choices or constraints they might have felt." The UVA President’s Commission on Slavery helped initiate this shift toward openly examining the university's multifaceted founding figures and history.

Not only has the Pavilion X exhibit contributed to these ongoing efforts, but it has also provided a platform for local descendants of enslaved individuals to connect with their ancestral history. As Dean Solomon notes, "The descendants worked really hard to try to say, ‘Hey, here's more. We are tired of an incomplete story masquerading as the full truth.’" 

A group of those descendants were among the first to see the pavilion exhibit in a private viewing before it opened to the public. For many, it was the first time they had entered the building where their ancestors were enslaved. 

Solomon continued, "History is political. It always has been and always will be. There's always multiple voices, multiple narratives, and it presents an important question — who's getting foreshadowed and who gets put in the background?"

Solomon hopes the exhibit will continue to catalyze "conversation, introspection, reflection and debate" across the UVA community.  Expressing his optimism about the future of historical exhibits at UVA and beyond and envisioning a landscape where such initiatives become commonplace, he noted, "I hope that there are so many things like this, that this becomes something unexceptional."

Panels of the exhibit and other historical information about Pavilion X can be viewed online here. The exhibit was created by a research and design team led by architectural historian Dr. Louis Nelson, UVA's vice provost for academic outreach, in collaboration with history professors, doctoral students, and the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA.

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