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New Abingdon, Virginia Exhibit Examines the Culture of Appalachian Industry



By Jess Nocera

February 1, 2018 - For the past six months, the word “coal” has been steadily moving from the back to the front of Callie Hietala’s mind.


William King Musuem of Art Coordinator Kathy Gibian (right) and curator Callie Hietala (left) talk about the new Coal Country exhibit that helps tell the storey of the industry in Appalachia. 

Photo by Andre Teague, Bristol Herald Courier

Hietala, curator at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, has been focused on coal for the museum’s new exhibit, Coal Country.

“It’s been an idea longer than when I started as a curator, going on three years ago now; there was a file that said ‘coal’ in our idea sections,” Hietala said.

The opening reception for Coal Country was yesterday.

The exhibit examines the culture of coal in Appalachia, including the family and lifestyle aspects, not just the job of coal miner itself. It runs from Feb. 2 to Aug. 12.

“So much of Southwest Virginia’s heritage exists and we exist because of the [coal] industry moving into this area,” Hietala said. “[When telling] the story about the culture heritage of Southwest Virginia, coal is a major part of it.”

The exhibit is housed in the museum’s Price-Strongwell cultural heritage galleries.

One half of the exhibit is about the miners, focusing on the creation of the United Mine Workers Union, the coal mining strikes and mining equipment. The second half is about the coal company towns and lives lived outside the mines. 


The new Coal Country exhibit has many different artifacts from Southwest Virginia that were used in the mine. 

Photo by Andre Teague, Bristol Herald Courier

“It seemed like a natural division. I think when people think about the coal industry they talk about the miners and the hazards that they endured,” Hietala said. “That made it more interesting to me: what do they do once the work is done, how do they live their lives? So we wanted to explore that.”

The exhibit features selection of mining helmets through the ages — including the first canvas cap used in open flame in the mines.

Other objects are on loan from both the coal company stores in Dante and Pocahontas and various museums.

Visitors can also see hazard accident report from Pocahontas, old pay slips, photographs, company scrips and jack rocks made from nails — used to damage vehicle tires during various coal strikes.

Kathy Gibian, exhibitions coordinator for the museum, said that the exhibit itself is a story.

“You wander through and I think the objects are just enough for people to understand what this is all about,” Gibian said. “It is a community — thinking about the miners and their families. They worked together and they lived together.”


A display on the dangerous aspects of working in the coal industry shows mine accident reports and warnings about certain parts of the site. 

Photo by Andre Teague, Bristol Herald Courier

Visitors will be able to hear some of the personal accounts of the miners and their families.

During the Great Depression, writers were sent into some of the Virginia coal towns to talk to people and get a written record of their lives, Hietala said.

The writers were there “to get a record of what their [coal miners] history was, what books they were reading, do they go to church and what church,” Hietala said.

Transcriptions of these interviews are available to the public. Hietala asked voice actors Eugene Wolf and Robin Mullins to read the interviews for a recording to be displayed on an iPad in the exhibit.

Museum-goers can put the headphones on and listen to “some of the good and the bad” these people endured, Hietala said.


The photo captures the evolution of the mining hats over the years, giving viewers a side-by-side comparison of the improvements that were made. 

Photo by Andre Teague, Bristol Herald Courier

“It’s more about the personal stories than anything else,” Hietala said.

Gibian expects people to share their connections to the coal industry.

“I think people will come here and tell their stories,” she said.

Hietala hopes that visitors will get a sense of the ups and downs that these miners and their families faced.


“The most important part to me is [visitors] come away with a sense of understanding and empathy for the people who lived their lives and who continue to live their lives as part of this industry,” Hietala said.