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Interpreting Slavery

by Kristen Laise, Executive Director, Belle Grove Plantation on

This March, I and my colleagues from Belle Grove Plantation and the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park in Middletown, Virginia had the good fortune to participate in an Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites workshop led by Kristin Gallas.

Ms. Gallas is the co-editor and author along with James DeWolf Perry of Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, published in December 2014 by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the Interpreting History Series. It is available for $29.95 paperback, $28.99 eBook, and $75 hardback.

Mr. Perry is the executive director of The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacy of Slavery, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that continues the work begun in the research and production of the 2008 PBS documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Ms. Galas directs public history programs for The Tracing Center.

The workshop presented the historical research conducted by the Center and included guided discussions on the participants’ understanding and feelings on slavery. It provided the time and safe space that the editors recommend that museums give their visitors when discussing challenging topics.

The 140 page publication is organized into short chapters with recommendations and tips that even the busiest museums can implement. If you, your museum leadership, staff or volunteers has concerns about presenting slavery to the public there are ample case studies to show you what our colleagues around the country have tried and what strategies are most effective.

The workshop and the book have me thinking about the following opportunities:
1. Provide content for local schools.  Our workshop included about 40 participants including National Park Rangers, museum staff, volunteer docents, board members, public program coordinators and living history interpreters—mostly white, ranging from 30-80, and from around the U.S. (though most of us live in Virginia today). We began by going around the room and answering the question “When was the first time you remember learning about slavery?” It was striking how many of us answered that it was in elementary school as part of a history curriculum. A few had learned about it from family members and a few had learned about it from museums but the fact that the classroom was so often cited, made me consider ways our museum can bring content to our area educators.

2. Slavery is (unfortunately) relevant to all American history museums. Belle Grove Plantation was a Virginia grain plantation from 1783-1860s and used enslaved labor so clearly we have this history to interpret. However, the Traces of the Trade documentary and Interpreting Slavery… publication emphasizes that the legacy of slavery was not limited to the American South nor limited to the pre-Emancipation era. A fuller picture of the trade is coming to light and the book discusses museums in the North that are choosing to present this part of their past. In addition, the history of slavery in America influenced all its economic history—the industry of the North and Midwest and the expansion to the West occurred because of this labor source. There is also a connection to today’s global economy and its reliance on cheap labor. The book cites several museums that are tying their interpretation to human trafficking and modern slavery; I also recommend President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. exhibit, “Can You Walk Away?”

3. Primary sources should be primary. Interpreting Slavery…repeatedly makes the point that generalizations about the slavery, slave owners and the enslaved is not useful to understanding or interpreting this history “Audiences expect to hear affective stories of individuals—black and white, enslaved and free—set into the context of the history of the site and the broad historical context of slavery.” (p. 5) The workshop was sponsored by the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park for it staff and park partners so that we can make the specifics of slavery in the Northern Shenandoah Valley more widely known. We are motivated to bring these stories to back into the light and return some humanity to this extremely inhumane institution and to rediscover the names of those that have been erased from history.

4. Visitors are interested in the process. It is OK to tell visitors how you know what you know and to acknowledge that the research is ongoing. Belle Grove is fortunate to have some primary sources about individual enslaved people and slave owners. However, it does not tell us everything that we wish to know. We have prioritized more research but until this time we have been hesitant to interpret the history until we knew more. The workshop and book encouraged us to share what we know and bring the visitor into our process of discovery. In some cases, open ended interpretation can engage the visitor more than a recitation of facts—we are finding “what do you think it might have been like to have been pregnant 10 times while working in this kitchen day after day?” or “how would you have felt coming to into this house to ask to purchase your son out of slavery?” to be a powerful new interpretation strategy.

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