Different places, different views

A view of the reconstructed skeletons of domestic slave quarters at Montpelier, James Madison's plantation.

Heading off to my first museum visit, I found myself surprisingly nervous. I had prepared thoroughly. I had directions, my notebook, and my friend to accompany me. However, as I turned on to the drive that lead to the Francis Land House I had to keep reminding myself that I was going on a tour, not a job interview. Our very kind tour guide gave us an engaging, informative, and interesting tour that allowed me to forget my nerves entirely and almost the purpose of the visit.

Half way through the tour our guide mentioned the former location of the kitchens and I realized then she hadn’t spoken about enslaved people a single time until that moment. I remembered, suddenly, why I had decided to look at the interpretation of slavery in plantation museums. Our tour guide had many opportunities to discuss slavery — when talking about the meals in the dining room or explaining how the house was built — but she missed most of these, only speaking of enslaved people twice on our tour. It was hard to deal with the fact that the very interesting and informative tour we received, focusing on the Land family and life in colonial Virginia barely touched on the lives of enslaved people. From this tour and the tours at the 16 other sites I’ve visited so far I’ve been surprised, disappointed, and impressed, but more than anything I’ve been reminded of how strongly I feel about this project.

While the museums I have visited share many similarities (all plantations, all built before 1820, all in Virginia, all owned by wealthy white people) they have many differences in the ways they are administered and interpreted today. Some are run by foundations, others by the National Park Services or their local governments, and a few are privately privately owned. Similarly, the types of tours I’ve taken have varied greatly. Larger museums have large group tours; those with fewer visitors have smaller group or even private tours. Still others have self-guided tours. Many places have exhibits or separate visitor centers that complement their museums and enhance the interpretation of the site. So far, however, I’ve not found that the size of the museum or tour to be directly correlated to the quality of the tour. I have taken extremely fascinating tours with groups of twenty people and highly educational tours with just me, the tour guide, and a friend.

In the same way, the focuses of the museums have ranged from the household furnishing, to the people who owned the plantation, to the plantation as a whole, to the whole of Virginia society. The plantations have had a range of methods for interpreting slavery as well. Surprisingly, at least to me, every tour has mentioned slavery in some way, even if only off-handedly. It is clear that all of the museums have an understanding that slavery should be discussed, but what this means differs widely from museum to museum. For some it is merely a mention that slaves lived on the plantation, while for others they realize that a thorough discussion of the lives of enslaved people is the only way to fully discuss the history of the plantation. Two of the museums have had separate slave tours, and I’ve found that these museums provided the most thorough discussions of slave life on the general house tour. Other museums, with fewer resources, which lack the ability to have separate tours, have given very complete examinations of slave life, though not as in-depth. The vast majority, however, have made slavery a very small part of their tours. Hearing tour guides mention slavery briefly and then move on to a discussion of material culture or architecture without further explanation has been by far the most frustrating part of this research.

These different methods have given me a chance to think about the intricacies of discussing slavery in plantation museums, not just whether or not it should be done. I’ve been able to think about the ways museums and guides have talked about enslaved people, the contexts in which they’ve talked about them, the words they’ve used, and when they’ve avoided talking about slavery. For example, if a tour guide talks about slavery in the dining room and outside but not in the other rooms of the house, what does that mean? If a tour guide talks only about the jobs enslaved people, but not any other qualities of their lives, what does that mean? I’m excited to get to think about questions like these over the rest of the summer and into next year. I’m just as excited to visit 20 more museums this summer.