Talking About an American Institution: Slavery in Plantation Museums

Mulberry Row, the slave quarters at Thomas Jefferson's plantation Monticello.

Unless one is willing to overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this society, the story of Virginia’s origins does not lend itself to romanticizing. –Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

I’ve always loved museums. There is a special quality about a place where all kinds of people can learn that draws me in. Even more than that though, travelling to places where important things happened has long excited me and made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. House museums unite the education of museums with the exhilaration of site visits. This love led me to take a class my sophomore year that focused on site visits, travelling around the state and beyond to learn about history at some of the places where it happened. I fell absolutely in love with the class and learned more history, and more about what history was, than I had ever known. But one thing bothered me. The more we learned about life in colonial Virginia and the more places we visited, I started to notice that something was missing: the stories of enslaved people.

My interest in slavery came long after my appreciation of museums. I had liked history well enough in high school and I could list off when the first Africans came to Virginia or when Nat Turner led his rebellion, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of slavery in Virginia. It wasn’t until college that I started to learn about slavery in a real way and develop an interest in those people whose lives I knew so little about, starting in an English class my freshman year. After that I was hooked. A passing interest in the fun facts of history became an intense enthrallment in the lives of enslaved people and the institution of slavery. In a lot of ways, my decision to study history grew out of an interest in studying slavery, not the other way around.

It wasn’t too surprising, then, that in the site visiting history class the next year I kept an eye out for slavery. What I didn’t expect was to find myself, time after time, coming up with nothing to look at. Or when there was something it was removed from the main story of the museums, seen as an aside or footnote to the real story. It was on a self-guided tour of the basement of a plantation museum, where the very thorough explanation of slave life had been relegated, that I decided I had to find out more about this phenomenon. Why weren’t plantation museums talking about slavery? It seemed like such a basic part of life on plantations, a definitive reality of it, that the exclusion or minimization made absolutely no sense to me.

Now, as a rising senior with the advice of Professor Melvin Ely I aim to make sense of this trend, or at least discover the extent of it. I will travel across Virginia, visiting plantation museums that focus on the early republic and colonial periods and examining how they interpret slavery and why. Thus far, my list of museums to visit comes in at about 30, but I’m relatively certain that it will grow as the summer progresses. I chose this time period for two reasons: I need some sort of limiting factor and it covers the time when Virginia had the strongest role in shaping America. I’ll take tours of each site and, if possible, speak to those charged with making decisions about the interpretation for background information.

I understand that museums can’t tell every story of every person who lived there completely. Because of this, they must form hierarchies about what stories get told and which do not. I will look at where enslaved people fit in these hierarchies. Are slaves discussed at all? If they are talked about, how is done? Are they relegated to self-guided tours through the basement? Are they only spoken of as “they” did this or “they” did that? Are individuals ever examined in-depth or even mentioned? How do they talk about the relations of the whites and blacks who lived on the plantation? These questions, and many more, serve to paint a picture of how museums engage with one of the most difficult, and important, aspects of interpretation museums face.

Enslaved African Americans had an important part in making the world we live in today. The failure of museums to acknowledge this role minimizes the significance of African Americans in Unites States history and ignores the outpouring of scholarship that has gone to great lengths to examine the horrific institution of slavery and the individual stories of people who lived under it. In order to fix this problem, we have to understand why it is happening and how far it reaches, which is what I aim to do. This is a first step to mitigating a problem whose consequences go far beyond my own interest in museums.