Sites of crimes against humanity aren’t “historic homes.”

Before white supremacists converged on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown and university this month, Jefferson was already enmeshed in a controversy about the news that Monticello is restoring a room to include more of Sally Hemings’ story. Widely circulated pieces by journalists like Britni Danielle and Shaun King have since responded to the rhetoric of calling Hemings Jefferson’s “mistress” and American society’s clemency for Jefferson.

While focused on Monticello, these critiques broach an issue at greater scale throughout the United States. We should be talking more about the problem that nearly all historic sites that once had slavery were preserved not because they were sites of slavery, but because they were impressive homes of white slaveowners.1

Many historic sites have begun teaching about enslaved humans through tours, special programs, and signage—but these efforts remain auxiliary to the core mission of educating about the historic home and homeowners. Monticello doesn’t even mention slavery in its mission statement. In case you’re wondering, Mount Vernon doesn’t either.

Briefly set aside any familiarity you have with historic homes and take a few moments to consider how absurd this convention really is. Here’s an exercise you might do:

// Think of a site of crimes against humanity outside the United States that you can visit as a tourist today. Could you imagine this place:

  • Having been saved as a historic site for a reason besides remembering the crimes against humanity and humans afflicted there?
  • Being marketed and most commonly known as the home or workplace of [name of oppressor]?
  • Telling visitors that [name of oppressor] had a complicated relationship with the humans they [crime committed], and visitors can opt to take a separate tour about those people while they’re there?
  • Selling postcards and other souvenirs showcasing the beauty of their architecture or landscaping?
  • Hosting weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, and other joyful events?
  • Being mirrored by sites matching these criteria throughout its nation or region with a frequency and ubiquity comparable to historic sites in the United States that once held enslaved humans?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these, I’d be grateful if you would comment. As it stands, I’m unaware of a phenomenon quite like this existing anyplace else. //

Being a white person, I can’t relate to or speak for the stories of enslaved humans. Yet, being a Jewish person, the mistreatment of these sites feels personal. A Holocaust museum is meaningless if the nation in which it stands denies reverence to its own sites of oppression. If all oppression is interconnected, then disrespect for one site of crimes against humanity must put the authority of all of them at stake.

Influenced by scholarship and movements led by people of color, many historic homes (Monticello included) have set aims to tell their sites’ “complete” stories by integrating more information about enslaved humans into their interpretations.2 These efforts are often called steps in the right direction, but I’m concerned they may be off-target in addressing the problem. The issue isn’t that sites are failing to tell the whole story. It’s that they’re still telling the wrong story.

Maris Jones once wrote, “Our trauma is not an accessory.” Her sentiment, while expressed in a different context, makes plain why inserting stories of slavery into the existing narrative is insufficient. If black stories can “complete” a site telling white stories, but not the other way around, then the black stories are being used to accessorize the white stories at their own expense. Treating black people as supporting characters for white people is counterproductive to teaching about slavery. Similarly, trauma isn’t a puzzle piece that completes the oppressor’s story. It doesn’t exist to complicate visitors’ understanding of the esteemed slave owner. Museums and historic homes shouldn’t be talking about the slave owners in the first place.

Aside from the moral question of whether these people deserve to be remembered, there’s a tactical question of whether interpreting them through their property is even a tenable mission for historic homes. It’s not obvious to me how seeing a famous figure’s house and personal effects helps visitors understand the significance of their work and contributions to society. In comparison, interpreting the evidence the house bears to crimes against humanity and the lives of humans who were enslaved there is unquestionably relevant to the place being preserved.

My most recent experience touring one of these houses happened about a year ago. The docent began with a biography of the (white) homeowner, gave a who’s-who of consecutive (white) tenants, and concluded with a tour of the house’s slave quarters. It took me some time to process how readily it was taken for granted that white people belonged in the story. If the homeowner is so unknown that a docent has to tell visitors who they were, there’s a good chance they don’t need to be mentioned at all.

Some would probably argue that visitor expectations make omitting narratives about slave owners impossible—anyone touring a house would want to know who owned it. A fraction of visitors will always have interest in this sort of information. For others, visitor expectations of hearing this trivia often indicate when sites are failing to define or communicate their real significance. Many docents at natural history and art museums, for instance, don’t include details like who built the museum and what year it was built in their tour scripts. When the mission to teach about art or natural history is clear to visitors, they are more prepared to expect that a tour will focus on these subjects.

To clarify their purpose for visitors (and staff), historic homes might reexamine what 1-2 aspects of their site most make it worth saving. In doing so, I think many would find incongruity between the people they’ve been discussing and the ones who matter.

So what does Monticello’s mission tell us about how the site perceives its value? It’s unlikely that seeing Thomas Jefferson’s bed and tea cups teaches visitors much about the Declaration of Independence or his Presidency. This suggests the site is still telling his story out of belief that it’s important for people to know who he was as a person and, by extension, what kind of person founded America.

Herein lies the problem: there are hundreds of historic homes all exhibiting the wealth and power of the same kind of person across the country. Even if all of these sites individually have good intent, collectively they convey that only this kind of person could have had the means to make an impact worthy of national memory.

We can remember this when we ask why white visitors are drawn to seeing the wealth of these sites even when it doesn’t seem to serve the educational mission the site claims. We can remember it when we ask why knowing who Jefferson was as a person is considered valuable information in the course of American history. And we can remember it when we ask why white supremacists found symbolic value in meeting at Jefferson’s hometown.

Peggy McIntosh once described an example of white privilege: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” If being told that people of your color built your nation is an indicator of privilege, then sites like Monticello must ask what it means to be the ones doing the telling.

Footnotes:
1. Nearly, not all. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
2. It would be impossible to cite all influential scholarship and movements here, but a few examples include Black Lives Matter, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, #BlkTwitterstorians, Visitors of Color, The Incluseum, Museum Hue, and the Brown Girls Museum Blog. For more examples, see this list of publications compiled by La Tanya S. Autry.

Special thanks to Camille Bethune Brown and Jordan Thibodeau for their helpful feedback for writing this post.

The Thing Great Museum Experiences Have in Common

Have you ever compared your top few museum experiences to find what they had in common?

I remember a conversation like this coming up in a discussion at the National Museum of American History when I was an intern there in 2012. Curators throughout the room raised their hands to share which museum they thought “does it best.” After the fifth person said the US Holocaust Memorial & Museum (USHMM), someone said something different. “Sure, we’d love to use the USHMM’s model,” they said, “but they only have one story they need to tell whereas we have hundreds.”

Storytelling is a hot topic in museums now, and I’m sure it’s part of why many of the curators admired the USHMM experience. After all, the museum is a linear path on a timeline telling the global story of events preceding the Holocaust to its aftermath. Then there are more personal stories worked in, such as the cards visitors receive describing a person from the time period and revealing their story as the exhibition progresses.

I’m a fan of the museum, but I’m unconvinced that its impact has much of anything to do with its storytelling. Plenty of museums and exhibitions have done a remarkable job of telling stories, but those weren’t the first examples jumping to curators’ minds in the meeting. My theory on what makes the USHMM stand out is the universally perplexing nature of its topic. At some point, everyone who learns about genocide experiences a sense of bewilderment about how, even when empowered by democracy, people can do such things to other people. In other words, the USHMM isn’t effective because it’s somehow better than all other museums at telling stories or because it only has one story to tell. It’s because its visitors share one very powerful question.

In searching my mental archives of exhibitions that have held meaning for me over the years, I found this central element of a “universally human” question to be a common thread. The title of this blog pokes a bit of fun at how dinosaurs are crowd-pleasers and the ultimate museum fail-safe. But dinosaurs fit this pattern too. Who hasn’t held a question, at some point in their lives, about what the world was like before humans or what other great beings exist(ed) besides us?

Another example, the recent Wonder exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum tapped into the question of why do we seek, wonder, and marvel at things beyond ourselves. In visiting the exhibition, I found a place and time to meditate on the question I had previously only experienced as a fleeting curiosity. Each new artwork and room I entered challenged and expanded the theories I had built in the one before.

I’m not sure whether this idea holds value for museums. Many already theme themselves and their exhibitions around questions. However, I’d argue that it’s less common for these questions to be relevant to all visitors (contributing to systemic exclusion of less valued audiences). It’s also less common for orgs to choose these questions because visitors are already asking them. Often the opposite is true; exhibition developers hope to open visitors’ minds to new ideas and enable them to ask deeper, more informed questions. All of that in consideration, maybe visitor research would reveal there are no such questions that everyone asks, and my own biases distort my perspective on the universality of the questions I listed as examples here.

What I can surmise at a personal level is that the most memorable exhibitions I’ve seen aren’t the ones that have told me stories, or taught me things, or inspired me to ask new questions. They’re the ones that let me enter and leave with the same question, but provided a well-stocked sanctuary for asking it again.