Opinion | Changes in Montpelier counteract repairing the wounds of slavery

Holds space while article actions load

Stephen P. Hanna, Derek H. Alderman and Amy E. Potter are co-authors of “Remembering Enslavement: Collection of the Southern Plantation Museum. “

As researchers who have researched the Montpelier, we are saddened and angry at the withdrawal of the Montpelier Foundation from its power-sharing agreement with the Montpelier Descendants Committee, as well as the dismissal of dedicated and talented staff who worked diligently to tell a more inclusive account. of American history. Plantation museums, including those dedicated to the nation’s first presidents, have rightly been criticized for marginalizing, trivializing, or even erasing slavery from their presentations of history. Prior to these actions, Montpelier was at the forefront of efforts to get descendants of slaves to retrieve their family stories and influence how their stories are interpreted for the public. Montpelier’s current management seemed to be retiring from this effort.

We are cultural geographers at the faculties of the University of Mary Washington, the University of Tennessee and Georgia Southern University, who are also research fellows at Tourism RESET, an interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to developing socially responsible approaches to cultural heritage tourism. For several years, we have been part of a large team of researchers who intensively study how the history of slavery is told in incomplete ways in dozens of plantation museums and other historical sites in the southeastern United States.

A few years ago, we partnered with Montpelier, Mount Vernon, Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland to document and analyze visitors’ reactions to the way these museums incorporated the history of slavery and stories of slaves into their tours and exhibitions. The goal was not to measure customer satisfaction, but to help museum staff take responsibility for public groups that increasingly demand a more racially just history. To that end, we surveyed 1,124 visitors as they left these four presidential museums, asking them to reflect on and evaluate what they learned and felt about slavery.

Montpelier stood out in our results, mostly because of the powerful “More Distinction of Color” exhibit, an installation with voices from descendants talking about their enslaved ancestors. Respondents to the survey reported that they learned more about the lives of slaves in Montpelier than at Mount Vernon, Monticello and Highland. In addition, several Montpelier respondents stated that slavery has had a greater impact on the development of the United States than their counterparts did in the other three locations. Finally, and clearly indicative of the emotional power of the “More Distinction of Color” exhibit, 84 percent of respondents said they left Montpelier and felt more empathetic to the people who were once enslaved on this plantation. This percentage was significantly higher than found at Highland and Mount Vernon and slightly higher than at Monticello.

These findings reflect the pioneering efforts of Montpelier staff in what we call “repair memory work.” They recognized that the plantations preserved to honor four of the country’s first five presidents are also places where blacks resisted, persevered, and survived. Yet a just memorial service for the lives of slaves cannot be achieved if it is performed only by museum professionals. It requires building relationships with descendants of people enslaved by the founding presidents of the United States. Montpelier’s staff created such connections to help descendants regain their family history and create an exhibition that was powerful because it highlighted and reflected the voices of the descendants.

Montpelier’s collaboration between museum management and descendants represented a major innovation in cultural heritage tourism, and we often highlighted it as a model for other historical sites we visited and helped. The “More Distinction of Color” exhibition is just one facet of this collaboration. Perhaps more significant was the 2018 release of “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery,” a guide for museums willing to build relationships with descendants of communities to interpret more inclusive stories for the public.

In his honor, the Montpelier Foundation and the professionals who worked on site did not rest on these achievements. Instead, they followed their own recommendations, which culminated in the historic but now damaged agreement reached between the Montpelier Descendants Committee and the Montpelier Foundation last June.

A plantation museum is the place where the role of slavery in the history of the United States should be more evident than practically anywhere else. Our research at Montpelier shows that as tour and exhibition content evolves through equitable collaborations between museums and descendants, visitors learn more about and feel empathy with people who experienced, resisted, and survived slavery. By revoking its agreement with the Montpelier Descendants Committee and firing the staff responsible for creating such collaborations, the Montpelier Foundation deprived precisely the voices that should tell American history, thus retaining rather than repairing the wounds of slavery at this presidential museum.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.