Tower_at_Curtis__SpeerNational Public Radio recently broadcast a story about the Smithsonian’s new exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty. What impressed me was that, despite controversies surrounding earlier exhibits (one on the Enola Gay and another commemorating 9/11), the Smithsonian has refused to limit its themes exclusively to “great ones” inspiring the rest of us.

In the NPR interview, Rex Ellis, an associate director with the Museum of African American History and Culture, noted that, “People often wonder aloud how a man who dedicated his life to liberty on the one hand could hold slaves close to him with the other.”  If you’ve seen this exhibit, how well do you think they handled this conflict between Jefferson’s ideals and his personal behavior?

NPR told why the stories of those who lived around “great ones” matter, as well:

“New Yorker Charles Shorter has come to the museum looking for his ancestors, who are descendants of the Hemings clan.” 

“This is really great,” he says. “The family’s been talking about the Shorters this and that, and I’m walking, and I say, ‘God, I can’t find anything!’ And then I see Elizabeth Hemings, and I see her descendants and the ones who fought in the Civil War. And there is the picture of my great-great uncle and my great-grandfather.”

History is about more than celebrating the achievements of political, cultural and economic elites. That idea shackles us to narrow, rigid perceptions; daily realities are much more complex. This is a challenge for all of us, whether we work at the Smithsonian, at former plantation homes, at county historical societies created by “founding families” or in a “great one’s” historic house.

We have to overcome a lot of inertia when we research and re-affirm the humanity and the ties binding “great ones” with the people who surrounded them.  Our past research and collections may have woefully little to offer. Remember, too, that such a path may antagonize donors or fellow leaders who have personal connections to those so revered.

It is possible to provide new perspectives; in fact, it may be the key to our survival. Granted, the people who created our organizations usually wanted either to instill a sense of civic pride or to preserve a certain legacy.  But those motives reflect a minority viewpoint; they aren’t necessarily relevant to those folks we serve (or should serve) today.

We need to share stories that matter to people who are new to our communities and to people unable to identify with “great ones.”  “Great ones” didn’t live in a vacuum. People like us maintained those beautiful houses, made their lives comfortable, managed their property, and influenced their decision-making.

So how can you convince your fellow leaders, volunteers, members and community that other people also had worthwhile stories?

There are no magic “bullet points” to convince those who disagree with this approach; that ignores the subtleties and nuances of your particular situation. Instead, let me point to a small museum that handled this issue successfully.

In her chapter “Dealing with Difficult Issues” in the Small Museum Toolkit, Madeline Flagler describes the process of a small staff changing its interpretation at the Bellamy Mansion Museum.  Here is an excerpt from her chapter, describing how and why they incorporated the story of the enslaved people who worked at the mansion. 

Don’t let bigger museums take all the credit for telling these important stories! Tell us what you have done to expand the stories and perspectives you share at your small museum.