Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum?
February 27, 2015 4:05 PM   Subscribe

Building the First Slavery Museum in America - David Amsden, The New York Times
"From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old 'Big House' will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life."

More photos of the Museum and grounds at
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (21 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
“If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”

Love it.

Thank you for this post.
posted by harrietthespy at 4:19 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

As someone who works in history education, I am really glad to see that this museum is being established. On the whole, US history musems paint a horribly whitewashed version of history, and slavery is one of their greatest blind spots.

Reading this: 'Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable."'

I do hope they're able to recruit good talent and raise money to develop strong programming; it sounds like they've not yet had the greatest success in fundraising (and, given the politics of museum donations, that's not surprising). But it seems to me there's so, so much potential for really amazing and educational programs here that really expand visitors' understandings of American history.

I hope they succeed at this, I really do. It would be awful to see it not last, or not be able to really properly develop and maintain excellent programming.
posted by thegears at 4:28 PM on February 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

Why doesn't this count as the first American slavery museum? It was founded 13 years ago.
posted by parmanparman at 4:56 PM on February 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've toured a bunch of the plantations on the River Road since I was a little kid and while many of them touch lightly on slavery, I've never seen anything like what the article describes. The next time we visit family in Louisiana, this plantation is on the agenda.
posted by immlass at 5:26 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

General rule...put up a museum for what was done to those for there is the museum in order to remember the failure to take moral hind ground in the past
posted by Postroad at 5:41 PM on February 27, 2015

I am of Deep South extraction. Our family owned slaves in Tennessee and Mississippi. The majority of families currently in the US with our exceedingly rare last name are African-American. I have never met any of them. Needless to say, this article resonates...
posted by jim in austin at 6:03 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, I certainly do want to go now. I was taken on the typical plantation tours as a teen and remember just knowing it was Not OK to ask about the slaves' lives.
posted by emjaybee at 6:41 PM on February 27, 2015

I have visited some of the plantation-museums in the Tidewater in Virginia. True, the Big House was always the main attraction, but my recollection is that they don't shy away from the topic of slavery. At Monticello, for example, they discuss Mulberry Row in some detail. I recall seeing reconstructed slave quarters at one of the Carter family plantations, and I know that Colonial Williamsburg includes discussions about slavery, as well.

This was 20+ years ago, so I can't vouch for how they might have changed, but at the time, slavery was definitely not whitewashed.
posted by dfm500 at 6:59 PM on February 27, 2015

Often there might be a discussion of slavery, but there'll be very little tangible presence. I recall visiting Stratford Hall (Robert E. Lee's birthplace) and other minor plantations along the way some 20 years ago and there were no slave quarters; when my companions and I would ask the tour guides about this (because we were the kind of jerks who would always ask the guides about stuff not on the tour) there'd be a weak, handwavey, "we don't know where they were." And yet, someone put in the time to lovingly restore period-appropriate furniture and decor to the Big House. I'm pretty sure if there was a will, there'd be a way to restore some period-appropriate slave quarters, too. Similarly I went on a tour of a slaveholding house in Savannah a few years back, and again the Big House was beautifully restored, and then the slave quarters were an empty attic room. It's a subtle and pernicious erasure of the slave experience and a signal that these properties are not particularly interested in bringing these other spaces to life, because that would be... uncomfortable.

To be fair, I see that Stratford seems to have finally gotten onboard with the slave quarters, but it took 'em long enough.

I'm going to New Orleans in a few weeks and I'm so hoping I get to visit this site.
posted by TwoStride at 7:26 PM on February 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

At Monticello, for example, they discuss Mulberry Row in some detail. I recall seeing reconstructed slave quarters at one of the Carter family plantations, and I know that Colonial Williamsburg includes discussions about slavery, as well.

I work in this field. These places are not the norm, but the more progressive examples, because of the degree of public funding and national sunlight on what they say and do. They employ critical historians and constantly update their interpretive messaging. Most plantation museums have nothing like the resources Monticello and Williamsburg/Carters Grove did and do. At the same time, these institutions are constrained by their "general audience" demands, by being national icons. The narratives they present typically have to reconcile the injustices of slavery with the pro-nationalistic bent visitors (and their classic funders group) expect, and this is a hard line to walk, interpretively, for any institution. They tend to "tell the truth but tell it slant," maintaining a dominant-culture perspective even as it allows for previously marginalized voices to be more heard. If you care to plunge into some of the complexities of these sites, it's not hard to find stories online about the protests of black constituents to even these more progressive institutions and the embedded baises they have. And, again, the smaller organizations running community- and regionally-based plantations are very far in both quality of scholarship and interpretive intent from the sophistication of interpretation you find at Williamsburg, Monticello, and others of their stature.

Why doesn't this count as the first American slavery museum? It was founded 13 years ago.

Really, really interesting, thanks for linking. I think your question is a good and serious one. You could spend a lot of time looking at the power differentials and degree of professionalism and difference between instutional and community museums, and thinking about the relative legitimacy of all of the trappings of each, especially with marginalized communities and stories. What does make a Whitney more "professional" than a "Lest We Forget," and are those rubrics really valuable, or another dominant-culture mechanism to control marginal expressin? But one major difference I note immediately is that one is site-specific and one is not. The power of a site (as opposed to displaced artifacts) is an undeniable boost to interpretive impact. It's one thing to show images and shackles and relate narratives, another entirely to stand in the footsteps of forebears and see what they saw. It is a good thing that at least one such site is in the hands of someone who doesn't just want to include narratives of enslaved people, but center the interpretation on the experiences of enslaved people.

If anyone is deeply interested and wants to follow some museum practioners on Twitter who are working on these issues in interpretation, often working within interpretive settings where they still encounter a shocking lack of familiarity and sensitivity regarding the enslavement period - MeMail me. One feed I highly recommend is @TheirChild, or The Descendant, blogging here.

I think I first ran across this project on a LinkedIn museum group - there were a bunch of links at the time, and I really have no hope of digging them up again because LinkedIn's past comment search is...abysmal, if existent. Anyway, here is one scrap I found: WSJ video,
posted by Miko at 8:05 PM on February 27, 2015 [18 favorites]

the slave quarters were an empty attic room.

Oh gosh, I just wanted to pick up on that too. Last year I went to an awesome session at NCPH about slave quarters and dwellings. It dealt a lot with the problem of how to depict them. So, some sites have built cabins and fully furnished them with bedding, clothing, tools, cooking stuff, etc. In that case, they find a lot of [white] visitors take a look around and say, "hmm, well, this isn't that bad!" Other sites take the tack of showing empty or barren rooms, in which case, some [black] visitors will say "you haven't done justice to the ancestors, they took care of their environments and made the best of what little they had!" Other sites went for ghostly framed-out buildings with no walls, or just footprints on the ground. What came through loud and clear was that the prior conceptions and orientations of visitors were the most powerful force in determining the takeaway message - not the hard-fought interpretive decisions past.

Another recent debate in museums was about a plantation house where they had black mannikins set around the rooms, represeting slaves. There were some staff who found this horribly dated and cringeworthy - there were no white mannikins representing the owners, or any other character - just slave mannikins. But it was the black curator who felt they were extremely important in communicating, in an embodied way, the ongoing and ubiquitous physical presence of enslaved African-Americans doing everything, in every space, in daily life to people who might otherwise mentally edit those figures right out.

So, these interpretation choices aren't easy. That's why, at the very least, it's interesting to see someone trying something quite a bit bolder and less equivocal than what is within the current standard range at institutional historic sites.
posted by Miko at 8:11 PM on February 27, 2015 [27 favorites]

Williamsburg VA has struggled with depicting slavery as well.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:38 AM on February 28, 2015

Thanks, kinnakeet. Over the years discussions of interpreting slavery have come up a few times and one was prompted by that article you remembered: Reenacting Slavery,Ask a Slave: Go On, and a thread about the CW article.
posted by Miko at 5:16 AM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Only through understanding and awareness of the past can we move forward, yet how do we confront the uncomfortable questions? Open and honest dialogue is a good start, and acknowledgment of the discomfort all around. Most important is that there are countless voices, too long silent, which need to be heard. If things were built on the backs of people who suffered, let that be acknowledged in full. Yes it's complicated but so is human history. We have to look squarely at our wrongs lest we repeat them. I salute those who struggle to make the slave experience vivid and real to a modern audience, even if that means ripping off a few scabs.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:42 AM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

We so desperately need this in this country, and I hope it becomes as well known and high profile as it should be.
posted by dilettante at 6:19 AM on February 28, 2015

I'm glad that this exists but it also made me think immediately of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. These types of issues are rarely without controversy.
posted by Fizz at 8:16 AM on February 28, 2015

I have visited some of the plantation-museums in the Tidewater in Virginia. True, the Big House was always the main attraction, but my recollection is that they don't shy away from the topic of slavery. At Monticello, for example, they discuss Mulberry Row in some detail. I recall seeing reconstructed slave quarters at one of the Carter family plantations, and I know that Colonial Williamsburg includes discussions about slavery, as well.

Yeah, I remember visiting a couple places like that too (Mount Vernon, in particular), and I remember the "slave quarters" segment as "and here were the cabins where the slaves lived, they were usually living [x] to a cabin, a couple lived in the big house and there were a total of [y] slaves here at Mount Vernon. And moving on to the stable...."

Sounds kinda whitewashed to me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 AM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

The OP made me curious about the other side and how the responses were to that:

Ghana's Museums On Slave Trade Irk US Blacks (1995)

Kura Hulanda(2010)
It is from here you can begin your journey into a horrifying history of torture and abuse — things we don’t like to, but must, remember. Along with the sinking feeling of seeing what awful things human beings have done and do to each other comes a strong sense of the importance of learning about those things. Being there is a way of honoring the people who suffered; recognizing the significance of that suffering.

and that led me down a rabbit hole on museums and their politics:

The never ending war over slavery (2003)
To Wilder, it’s striking that it seems easier for Americans to confront the shameful history of Nazi-sponsored genocide. “None of it ever happened here, none of it,” he says. “To the extent that Jews were persecuted here, they were persecuted along with African-Americans. There was anti-Semitism, anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-anything in terms of people who weren’t the true bloods. I want to show that there aren’t any true bloods in America. I don’t want to talk about what was good and what was bad and who was right and who was wrong. I want to lay out the facts, so you can tell the story for yourself.”

Nation’s largest African-American history museum at risk in Detroit (2014)

The upcoming International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25th), and twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide (April 7th) provide an occasion to examine how we publicly commemorate inhumanity at its worst.

It’s taken a long time for the Western countries that profited from the 300-year trade in twelve million Africans to begin to come to terms with the sorrowful history of the Middle Passage and chattel slavery.

Motivated by the 150th anniversary of the political decision to abolish the slave trade, a few English museums broke the silence. “What does a sweet cuppa have to do with a terrible crime against humanity?” At the Museum of London Docklands you will find a powerful exhibition on “Sugar and Slavery” that answers this question and reveals the centrality of the fourth largest slaving port in the world to the country’s economic development. Similarly, an exhibition at Liverpool’s Maritime Museum’s leaves no doubt that every leading entrepreneur in the region cashed in on the buying and selling of human beings. And if you want to more deeply understand the who, how, and long-term consequences of British slave-ownership, there’s an excellent website at University College London.

The many public events in England to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade were/are typically ephemeral or tokenistic. If you visited the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol before 2008, you would have learned about the ties between slavery past and racism today. Now it’s shuttered. As you walk through the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and National Maritime Museum in Greenwich looking for representations of the slave trade and abolitionist movements, don’t blink or you’ll miss them.
Meanwhile, in the United States the enduring legacies of slavery “stick like a fishbone in the nation’s throat,” as historian Edward Linenthal observed. There is still no day set aside to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite an enormous amount of scholarship on the topic, public recognition of slavery is timid, with the guardians of cultural instititions generally unwilling to dredge up smoldering enmities or sully glorious stories of the nation’s origins. Many museums deal with the contributions of specific ethnic groups, but what’s absent is any national recognition of the deep wounds and ruptures generated by racism, and of slavery as a foundational event. Hopefully, this will be rectified next year when the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open and promises to recast “Black History” as the “American story.”

It took Great Britain more than a century after the beginning of its imperial decline to initiate an honest discussion about the legacies of the slave trade. Hopefully, the United States will not have to wait for future generations to explore how the past bleeds into the present.

posted by infini at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Those of you interested in this might like this newly published book, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. More detail at the publisher's site.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Relatedly, the Af Am History Fail Twitter account is interesting (and frustrating). The account bio:
I work at a historic plantation, where I give presentations on African-American history and #slavery. These are some real things tourists have said back to me.
posted by Lexica at 4:13 PM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the link, Lexica, I followed and discovered someone I know from S Africa already following them.
posted by infini at 3:20 AM on March 2, 2015

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