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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

‘Hidden Narratives’ exhibition opens at Vaughn Home

The exhibition highlights the lives of many of the home’s lesser-known residents.
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Exterior of the Vaughn Home, as photographed on Nov. 15, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Narenkumar Thirmiya)

The historic Vaughn Home on Vanderbilt’s campus, also home to the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, opened its “Hidden Narratives” exhibition on Oct. 24. The exhibition highlights the stories of those who have lived in the house since its construction in 1875. 

The Vaughn family, after whom the house was named, were one of the most prominent families to live in the house. Dr. William Vaughn, a curator of books, collected around 6,000 volumes that served as the university’s unofficial library. Stella Vaughn, his daughter, has a more in-depth story within the university and was one of the earliest women graduates of the university. She also served as the first unofficial Dean of Women Students, first female instructor of women’s physical education and first coach of women’s basketball, a team that she created. 

The exhibition focuses not only on the families who lived in the home but also on the lesser-known stories of the women who later lived there and Black servants who worked there.

In 1942, the house was transformed from a family home into a residence for women attending Vanderbilt. In the late 1950s, it was again repurposed into a faculty residence and administrative office and in 1988 became home to the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, which remains today.

Victoria Hensley, professor of art history and curator of the “Hidden Narratives” exhibition, said the exhibition was a part of a much larger project to turn the Vaughn Home into a living laboratory for student learning.

“The ‘Hidden Narratives’ concept, which Matt Worsnick envisioned with his history of art students in 2020, allowed us to research the lesser known stories of people and places on campus,” Hensley said. “Through primary source research and the archaeological excavations, we can share their stories with the Vanderbilt community, rather than leaving them in the past.”

At the opening ceremony for the exhibition, Holly Tucker, director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, said that this project was the culmination of eight faculty members teaching 19 courses to 237 students.

“Having all those different voices come together to create a coherent exhibition is quite the challenge,” Tucker said. “The exhibition is about hidden narratives, stories that we are proud of, voices and lives that have been part of this house and will continue to be part of this house forever.”

Matthew Worsnick, professor of art history, taught research and curation courses that allowed students to engage with the history of the home and develop the exhibition’s theme.

“Discoveries around race, class and gender led the seminar students to struggle profoundly with how to present this historic lineage of the building and its occupants,” Worsnick said. “They wanted to recount it justly and honestly, not as a simplistic caricature of old Southern ignorance and prejudice, but in all its depth, multiplicity and ambiguity.”

Students can also engage with the history of the home through hands-on excavation in  archaeology classes taught by anthropology professors Giles Spence-Morrow and Steven Wernke, which focus on the ongoing excavation of the yard behind the house. The excavation began in 2015.

“Across both courses, 110 students have taken part in the archaeological research thus far,” Spence-Morrow said. “[Wernke] established the course in 2015 as an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience of archaeological methods while investigating Vanderbilt’s early history from the perspective of the lives of African American service workers who once resided in a small cabin that once stood behind the Vaughn Home.” 

Spence-Morrow said that little is known about the servants and their lives in the Vaughn Home from 1875 to the 1940s, but archival research and excavation have shed some light. 

“Through archaeological excavation of the area that was once the front yard of the service worker’s cabin, we have been able to find traces of daily life, pottery and glass, doll fragments and construction materials,” Spence-Morrow said.

Junior Lily Baker took Spence-Morrow’s excavation class in fall 2022 and described the experience as rewarding.

“Part of the goal of the Vaughn Home excavation is to learn about the lives of the people who worked for the Vaughns, who lived in the cottage behind the Vaughn Home that is no longer there,” Baker said. “I really feel like you get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

Brina Ratangee contributed reporting to this piece.

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About the Contributors
Jacob Stoebner
Jacob Stoebner, News Editor
Jacob Stoebner ('26) is from Franklin, Tenn., and is majoring in biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering. When not writing for The Hustler, you can usually find him running, hiking in parks around Nashville or reading. He can be reached at [email protected].
Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang, Staff Writer and Photographer
Jenny Yang (‘26) is from Colonial Heights, Va. She is majoring in economics and political science with a minor in business. In her free time, Jenny enjoys trying new food, learning about different cultures and spending quality time with loved ones. She can be reached at [email protected].
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Narenkumar Thirmiya, Staff Photographer
Narenkumar Thirmiya ('24) is from Orlando, Fla., and is majoring in neuroscience and medicine, health, and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, he is streaming TV, playing the piano or guitar or exploring nature photography. You can reach him at [email protected].
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