James Madison’s Montpelier Unveils New Exhibition on Slavery & Enslaved

On Monday, June 5, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia opens “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” a major exhibition on the history and impact of slavery in the United States. It examines slavery both from the perspective of James Madison and his peers as well as from the 300 men, women, and children enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier. It’s a complex and difficult story, but Montpelier has been researching and interpreting this topic for nearly 20 years. Thanks to a generous $10 million gift from David Rubenstein (co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group), that effort will be move to a higher level in this path-breaking exhibition. During the past two years, the museum staff worked closely with Proun Design, Northern Light Productions, and Mystic Scenic Studios to design, fabricate, and install the exhibition.

As an advisor and consultant to Montpelier for nearly fifteen years, I’ve watched its interpretation evolve. This exhibition is a major step forward for them and for historic sites who are interpreting slavery. Rather than simply discuss the hard and oppressive life of slaves (“working outside is hot,” “they slept in small cabins”) and the dull recounting of dates and statistics (e.g., average number of slaves on a farm), Montpelier’s exhibition explores the inhumanity of slavery and the humanity of enslaved people, as well as the impact of slavery on daily life and impact of the US Constitution (Madison’s major legacy) on slavery. Furthermore, the exhibition goes past emancipation and discusses it’s ongoing legacy, whereas most historic sites conclude African American history with the Civil War. You’ll get a strong sense of this approach in their exhibition overview and an accompanying online resource that explains six ways that understanding slavery will change how you understand American freedom.

Interpretive planning workshop at Montpelier, February 2017.

There are a lot of ingredients that made this level of interpretive success possible.  I may be speaking prematurely because I haven’t seen the reaction from the public or other professionals (and some parts will be controversial), but some of the aspects that stand out are:

  1. Value diverse expertise and perspectives.  Compared to most historic sites, Montpelier has a large staff and this provides them the opportunity to gather diverse expertise, such as education, archaeology, history, political science, communications, and historic preservation.  This ensured multiple perspectives on the project so they could think bigger than they could as individuals, although it can slow down the process and result in conflicts. Many organizations want to avoid this, thus tend to work with people who think the same and agree with each other. This ultimately results in either bland thinking or blind spots. Working with diverse perspectives is challenging, but facilitation skills can help tremendously (see Secrets of Facilitation by Michael Wilkinson and Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner).
  2. Go beyond existing knowledge to expand thinking and perspectives. Staff frequently attend professional conferences and visit other historic sites to learn what works (and what doesn’t). They regularly invited people outside the organization to explore and test ideas, including scholars, experts, colleagues, consultants, visitors, and descendants (descendants are perhaps unique to historic sites, which have a history of residents). This is tough because it exposes the organization to criticism and feels like you’re displaying your weaknesses, but it also encourages the organization to continually improve and stay at the leading edge.
  3. Pursue a long-term vision and engage in long-range planning. Montpelier’s mission is bland and monochromatic, but what seemed to propel it forward were big goals and clear expectations. We often had to make these explicit and there wasn’t always agreement, but in the right hands (that is, the CEO and key staff and board members), it made a tremendous difference for gaining momentum. Every organization needs a mission, but I increasingly find that they only serve as the “guardrails on the highway”. Vision provides a destination and indeed, it provided the motivation for Rubenstein’s gift.  Planning helps you figure out how to achieve the vision. Notice that I didn’t say “plan”? The process may be more important than the product. Montpelier doesn’t have an interpretive plan but we’ve been planning for years, establishing policies and principles that allow future decisions to be made more quickly and easily.

I can’t wait to see the exhibition for myself when I visit Montpelier again this summer. In the meantime, if you visit, please share your reactions and thoughts in the comments below.

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