Vanderbilt University History Explored through Art, Archives and Artifacts

Three engaging new exhibitions that explore Vanderbilt’s history are on display throughout the summer as part of the university’s sesquicentennial celebrations. The libraries have partnered with faculty and students to curate two exhibitions at Central Library that reveal hidden stories about student life at Vanderbilt. In Special Collections, an exhibition highlighting the silver and gold objects in the university’s collections explores historic contributions of the Vanderbilt community through precious objects. 

Vanderbilt Self-Portrait is a photography project aiming to capture the image and essence of Vanderbilt through its community members’ faces. This spring, the project curators, Allen Zeng (2023) and Richard Zhang (2024), supported by faculty advisor Professor Vesna Pavlović and librarian Yvonne Boyer, photographed students, faculty, and staff, as well as the environments in which they study, work, and relax. The project was awarded the Chancellor’s Office Sesquicentennial Grant with additional funding from the Richard D. and Poppy Pickering Buchanan Library Fellowship program. Students explored historical photographic portraiture and yearbooks in the Special Collections Library to draw connections between historic and contemporary student portraits and better understand what it means to be a part of the Vanderbilt community. The hope is that the present community will be able to use this project to reflect on itself, and for future generations to understand the significance of what it means to be a Commodore. The project will be archived in the libraries for future researchers, accessible in both physical and digital formats. 

Cherokee and Chickasaw Students at Vanderbilt, 1885-1899, an exhibition funded by the Chancellor’s Office Sesquicentennial Grant and curated by Professor Daniel J. Sharfstein, explores the student experience and lifelong contributions of twelve Cherokee and Chickasaw students who attended Vanderbilt during the last years of the 19th century.  One of the project’s goals was to capture the experience of travelling to Nashville from Cherokee and Chickasaw territories. Native American removal policies were within the living memory of their parents and grandparents. Traveling the Trail of Tears in reverse, the students arrived at a new university built on ancestral territory.  Never anonymous and fully engaged in campus life, they distinguished themselves in classrooms and on debating stages and playing fields. Eight became lawyers, shaping local and national tribal affairs from present day Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. Together, Vanderbilt’s first indigenous scholars represent a bridge generation who sustained their nations through an era of forced assimilation. 

In the Special Collections and University Archives All That Glitters: Silver and Gold at Vanderbilt is on display through July. Curated by Molly Dohrmann, the exhibition explores how artisans express significance through embellishment. Vanderbilt’s memorabilia collection holds many commonplace items, from freshman beanies to football trophies, that evoke memories through their familiar connections to life on campus. The items in this exhibit were expressly designed in silver and gold to memorialize events of singular importance. From achievements in science to outstanding contributions to our country, these amazing artifacts reflect the Vanderbilt community’s civic contributions and the capacity of silver and gold to recognize extraordinary accomplishments. The libraries are grateful to the donors and lenders who entrusted Vanderbilt with these historic objects.