How to Improve the Interpretation of Slavery by Engaging Descendants

A year ago, James Madison’s Montpelier invited me to the National Summit on Teaching Slavery to create a “methodology for how public historians work with descendants” (program, 6 Mb pdf). Over a long weekend, fifty people from across the country with a wide range of experiences and perspectives worked in small groups to define and prioritize standards and best practices for interpretation, research, and involving the descendant community. It builds upon Montpelier’s award-winning exhibition, A Mere Distinction of Colour, to help “Americans of all types truly understand the ongoing struggle for freedom, rights, and equality in our nation.” The National Council on Public History recently posted a nice series of discussions on the exhibition with students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

One of the major challenges was determining what is distinctive about teaching slavery from interpreting other topics, such as women or Asians. At first, the discussions identified practices that had already been figured out years ago by the American Historical Association and the National Association for Interpretation, but that was to be expected because many participants had little experience in scholarship or interpretation–what bound us together was improving and enhancing the interpretation of slavery at museums and historic sites. Although the rehash of these professional practices was frustrating and I wondered why we were going over old ground, it eventually dawned on me that while these practices may be long-established, they are not well-established. Our visitors may not be museum professionals or academic scholars, but they can sense something is missing when they visit historic sites and house museums. We still have a lot of work to do.

Draft rubric on interpretation from the National Summit on Teaching Slavery, February 2018.

More interesting was the discussion on race. Although participants agreed that race is a man-made construct and thus can be deconstructed, the group wasn’t ready to go there. Instead, they preferred to use equitable, inclusive, and multi-dimensional. Because race has been a fundamental way of explaining differences in people for centuries in the US, explaining it as a social construction upsets our basic sense of the world. If you’re not familiar with it, check out the articles in Scientific American and National Geographic. Even though this convening on the teaching of slavery could easily discuss racism and its consequences during the weekend gathering, confronting race and racism as a standard practice in the museum field was too difficult.

In the fall of 2019, James Madison’s Montpelier issued the final product from this summit: “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites“.  I’m so pleased that it focused on the engagement of descendant communities because it pushes the field to the next level of performance. If it had tackled the interpretation of slavery, it would have simply echoed what has been said for the past two decades by others (to get a sense of this, check out the bibliography on interpreting African American history and culture). It also aligns with other efforts in our field to promote inclusion and equity, as mentioned in the introduction:

“Engaging descendants of enslaved communities forms a critical component of the rubric. Empowering descendant voices challenges the public to consider their points of view, which until very recently have been marginalized from the dominant historical narratives offered in classrooms, textbooks, museums, and historic sites…We hope that this rubric is viewed and utilized as a foundation upon which to construct richer, more diverse narratives that bring people to better understand the lived experience of slavery and its legacy, as well as to highlight examples of perseverance that carry descendants legacies into the future.”

Along with describing performance levels from unsatisfactory to exemplary on topics of multi-disciplinary research, relationship building with descendant communities, and interpretation, it provides a thoughtful essay by Michael Blakey at the College of William and Mary.  As he points out, the rubric:

“seeks to enable an authentic dialogue about the past in a plural democracy in which descendants have a specific right to be heard and to benefit equitably from sites of their history, long denied them….One hopes that given this clear road map, sites and the professions who run them, will proceed to the locations of shared power and voice with descendants. These are the locations of the democratization of knowledge, broad public interest, empathy, and growing markets….Perhaps our future best interpretations of the past will not come by the easiest process, but they will be our responsibility.”

Indeed, the rubric increases the responsibilities for the interpretation of slavery at history museums and historic sites.  And like most standards and practices, they are continually evolving and eventually, my hope is that what is now considered “exemplary” will be considered “basic”–and we can eventually confront the social construction of race.


2 thoughts on “How to Improve the Interpretation of Slavery by Engaging Descendants

  1. David Young

    This is both a profound and helpful document, Max, composed with great care and urgency. I was proud to take part in the summit as well as the drafting of the document with many committed colleagues. It is worth a read for really any kind of engagement with descendants (alumni groups, veterans, survivors, and more) so as to guide how we build projects to do their histories justice and carry them out responsibly and effectively.


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