GSM Project unveils an immersive installation at Monticello to tell the inspiring story of Sally Hemings
Montreal, June 21, 2018 – The Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello selected GSM Project to develop an exhibit about Sally Hemings (1773–1835), one of the most famous African American women in U.S. history. For more than 200 years, her name has been linked to Thomas Jefferson as his enslaved “concubine”, obscuring the facts of her life and her identity. Through an immersive installation designed by GSM Project, the exhibit depicts key moments in Sally Hemings’s remarkable story and relies on the words of her son, Madison, to explore her life and the legacy of freedom she achieved for her family. The exhibit opened its doors on June 16 in the south wing of Monticello, where she once lived. Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, Monticello is recognized as a National Historic Landmark, a United Nations World Heritage Site and a Site of Conscience.
Telling the Story of Sally Hemings Through Historical Evidence
GSM Project faced many challenges developing The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit. One of the most significant was how to depict her life, as she left no written accounts (a common consequence of enslavement), and no imagery exists of her to this day. Although GSM Project gained valuable insights from the historical evidence—including Jefferson’s plantation records and her son Madison’s reminiscences—there is still a lot that is unknown.
True to its philosophy that content always comes first, GSM Project used an innovative and immersive storytelling approach to depict Sally Hemings’s story based on the historical evidence about her life, and without adding any interpretation or generalization. GSM Project’s team imagined a simple, yet elegant artistic installation that gives prominence to Madison’s words which, through their simplicity, strength and poetry, communicate to visitors the life and legacy of Sally Hemings and leave space for emotion. The multimedia experience also enables visitors to travel through space and time, taking them on Sally Hemings’s trip to Paris—and then back to Monticello.
To gain a better understanding of Sally Hemings’s life, it became clear that visitors needed a dramatic moment. “We’ve always found it fascinating how theatre can bring visitors closer to certain truths, rather than descriptive texts,” explained Geneviève Angio-Morneau, Creative Director for GSM Project. “This is what we tried to do with this installation—provide a glimpse of Sally Hemings’s essence so that visitors could face the complexity of her situation, but also feel empathy for her and understand the challenges she faced in her everyday life. The combination of multimedia and object theatre (shadows and costumes) enabled our team to hint at Sally’s presence through projected shadows, a dress on a mannequin and a soundscape.” This helped to bring to life Sally Hemings’s story.
Letting the walls speak
Another challenge lies in the exhibit space itself. The small, windowless room can only accommodate about a dozen visitors at a time and care has to be taken to preserve the original 19th-century structure. The small space, while a challenge for visitorship, enables viewers to experience the environment of Sally Hemings’s living quarters.
GSM Project is very familiar with these complexities due to its experience on similar projects highlighting archeological remains or historical sites with all the constraints that those entailed, such as the Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Archaeology and History Complex (Canada), located on the very site where Montreal was founded in 1643. For this reason, each of the company’s projects has its own unique signature: a combined expression of the subject matter and context of the project, strongly guided by the client’s vision and objectives.
GSM Project is an experienced and multidisciplinary company with a creative philosophy built on fostering visitors’ understanding, using content as the starting point for all design choices.
About GSM Project
GSM Project specializes in the creation and production of visitor experiences. Founded in 1958 in Montreal, Canada, the company also has offices in Dubai and Singapore and collaborates with a wide range of clients all over the world to create immersive, educational and fun experiences. GSM Project has designed exhibitions for major museums across the globe, such as the National Museum of Singapore, the Canadian History Hall in Ottawa (Canada), the Anchorage Museum (Alaska, United States), and the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City (Canada).
More information available at gsmproject.com
For more information, to request images or to schedule an interview:
Bridget Ann Peterson/Bertrand Legret
Massy Forget Langlois Public Relations
T: + 1 514 842-2455, ext. 26/15