Whose History Belongs in a House Museum?

The facade of Monticello on a sunny day
Monticello (wikimedia commons)

I recently read an article entitled, “Will History Only Remember the Founding Fathers as Slaveowners?” The author is Suzanne Sherman, a lawyer who took her homeschooled children on a road trip from Utah to East Coast to visit sites associated with the some of the great men in U.S. history. She describes her visits to a number of historic sites (Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier, John C. Calhoun’s home, and the Peyton Randolph House). Sherman is unimpressed with how many of these sites work to include the narratives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in these spaces, and harries the docents about their apparent insistence on interpreting the lives of enslaved people (except at Poplar Forest, where she found an ally against the scourge of “revisionist-style” history.

The author of the article makes two points in particular that I would like to discuss. First, this paragraph:
“Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.”

Aside from the pearl-clutching (but apparently sincere) tone of “What about our precious liberty?,”that final line is telling, “…the slaves… are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.” What strikes me about this sentiment is that the author does not consider that enslaved people have always been used as the means to further a political agenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolent master who took care of his slaves, who were child-like and ill-prepared to live in the world without their white master’s guidance. The author herself states that, “had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved.”
RUN away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is inso- lent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is ex- peceted he will endeavour to dispose; he also carried his shoe- makers tools, and will probably endeavor to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. (shillings) reward, if taken up within the county, 4 l. (pounds) if elswhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony, from THOMAS JEFFERSON.
An ad for a runaway slave by Thomas Jefferson. (http://classroom.monticello.org/teachers/gallery/image/226/Runaway-Ad/)

That’s obviously not the case; thousands of enslaved people fled captivity and did not starve, nor did the many freedmen who lived throughout the country at a time when there was no real place for free people of color in many parts of white society. Beyond that, in many plantation settings, enslaved people were responsible for growing their own gardens to supplement whatever rations they received from white masters. Sherman positions herself as an expert on slavery relative to the docents she encountered, yet she cannot see past her own impressions of what slaves were like. In her view, they were helpless and unintelligent, an attitude that slave-owners used to justify their own actions and one that was perpetuated after Emancipation to legitimize the denial of civil rights and full citizenship to African Americans. Sherman refuses to acknowledge the implications of her attitude, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with my assessment.

The other issue I’d like to bring up is the question of interpretation at house museums. Sherman is at pains to point out that these sites neglect to interpret “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” I wonder if she ever visited any of these sites before they began openly interpreting the lives of enslaved people? I certainly did. I grew up in Virginia, and I lived in Williamsburg for three years in the 1990s. I remember hearing enslaved workers referred to as “servants” with little or no reference to the fact that they were engaged in forced labor. I knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but I knew it in an abstract way that allowed me to retain a sense of awe at his achievements. For what it’s worth, I’m still impressed by his achievements, but my awe is tempered by my awareness of him as a deeply flawed human being. His lauded efficiency, for example, was facilitated by the fact that he had dozens of enslaved workers who took care of the mundane tasks of daily life like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

The real point is that in my (admittedly flawed) memory, these sites never focused on “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” They instead described the daily lives of the white people who inhabited these spaces using the landscape, building, and material culture (furniture, art, artifacts). If you wanted to learn about Peyton Randolph’s historical contributions, you could read a book. Being the physical space was an opportunity to imagine daily life in this setting.

This is why so many of these sites have worked to include the stories of enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest intermittently during his adult life. During that same time, hundreds of enslaved people lived at those sites for their entire lives. Their forced labor made Jefferson’s lifestyle possible, and their lives literally shaped the landscape and built environment.
Image of an archaeological dig with Montpelier in the background.
Archaeological work at Montpelier reveals the foundations of foundations of slave quarters. (http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2015/06/16/slavery-interpretation-at-montpelier/)

This is obvious to me as a public historian and preservationist, but it’s clearly not obvious to visitors. So what is the solution? Do we take Sherman up on her suggestion and return to hagiographic interpretations of great white men that obliterate the lives and contributions of thousands of human beings whose enslavement was justified by the color of their skin? There are, first of all, plenty of sites that still do that. I would argue that we need to take our educational initiative further. Let’s talk to visitors about why interpret what we do. Let’s explain that these sites were never used to explore Madison’s political philosophy, but rather his daily life, which was informed by his status as a man who owned enslaved workers. And let’s talk about how we are trying to give them a more authentic sense of his life, one that explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that make lives challenging and interesting.

And in the meanwhile, let’s all take a minute to thank the docents for being on the front line of these tough conversations.

A Trip to the Zoo

So I made it to Johannesburg, and I’ve now officially been here for a week. It seems like a lot longer, in part because it took two days to get here. I left last Sunday (Sept 28), flew overnight to London where I spent 14 hours (during which I visited the fantastic V&A Museum) before catching another overnight flight (10.5 hours) to Johannesburg. The trip to London was a bit rough; I didn’t sleep well, due to adrenaline and a bad seatmate, but I did get to see a great movie I’d been meaning to catch, Belle, which I recommend thoroughly. If you’re wondering why I don’t have any pictures from London, it’s because I left my camera at home, because of course I did. Fortunately, I am renting an iPhone while I’m in South Africa, so I have plenty of photos of my adventures here.

IMG_0060
View down the street in the Melville suburb; walls and gates the entire way. (Author’s image)

After spending a day recovering from my journey, I decided to ease into my trip by starting out with a visit to the Johannesburg Zoo. One of the things that has really struck me about Joburg (or Jozi, as the locals call it) is how little public space there is. All of the houses are behind walls and fences and gates, so there’s very little to see when you walk down the street. Several tourism websites recommended the zoo as a place where it is possible to walk around and see things without concerns for safety that seem to be embedded into the physical space of the city elsewhere, and I definitely found that to be the case.

I took a taxi to the zoo (because everyone drives here), and I was pleasantly surprised. The zoo is laid out informally relative to a lot of zoos I’ve visited, by which I mean that there’s no clear direction of traffic or path to follow. There are some paved walks, but other walks are little more than dirt paths, though they are clearly meant for visitors since there are markers with information about the animals in each enclosure. One of my favorite things about the zoo was their work on historic preservation. Though the zoo has only limited space in which to expand, they have retained the historic animal enclosures and interpret them for visitors.

Old Polar Bear Enclosure Marker
IMG_0018 Interpretive marker for the Old Polar Bear Enclosure and Old Polar Bear Enclosure (Author’s images).
Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author's image).
Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author’s image).

Some of the enclosures have been repurposed to house new species. The Old Polar Bear Enclosure (pictured above) is now home to the bushbabies. It’s a great lesson on the evolution of animal husbandry, though it’s a little horrifying to imagine some of these animals being kept in such small spaces. Along with the Old Polar Bear Enclosure, the zoo also still has the Old Carnivore Enclosure and the Old Elephant House. These sites all have interpretive markers that discuss when they were built, and acknowledge that these facilities were state-of-the-art at the time they were constructed. While the zoo still has lions and elephants, they are now housed in much more generous spaces.

Preservationists like to talk about the importance of protecting the layers of past embedded in the landscape, meaning that we want to protect the evidence of how the use of the physical landscape has changed and evolved. In a historic house, this means keeping additions made throughout the house’s life that show how various residents adapted the house to their changing needs. In the case of the zoo, it means keeping and reusing old structures so that visitors can see and appreciate how this zoo (and zoos generally) have evolved to provide better and better care for their animals. The approach used by the Johannesburg Zoo is a great example of an effective and low-maintenance way to expand the visitor experience to include education about history as well as animals. If you find yourself in Joburg on a beautiful day (like I did), it’s well worth a visit.

Friendly shire horse
Of course I made friends with this very sweet Shire horse from their farm exhibit (author’s image).
Getting kisses from a juvenile sable antelope
I also made friends with this juvenile sable antelope (author’s image).
obligatory zoo peacock
Obligatory zoo peacock (author’s image).