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 Continue reading →
UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)
Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history. The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.
In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!). Continue reading →
Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.
The Delaware Historical Society reopened their museum last fall with two new complementary exhibitions designed by the Gecko Group, one a comprehensive history of the state and the other on the history of African Americans in Delaware. I recently visited the museum with Scott Loehr, the CEO, who pointed out a clever interpretive technique. The two exhibitions share a common wall, which has a doorway that allows visitors to walk from one to the other and exhibit cases on either side. It’s not immediately obvious, but the objects on display are interpreted differently depending on which side of the wall you’re standing.
For example, a Crown Stone from the Pennsylvania-Maryland Border has a two-sided label. The side facing Continue reading →
For the past 15 years, McDaniel also taught the AASLH Historic House Issues and Operations Workshop with Max van Balgooy, most recently in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Drayton Hall Preservation Trust (DHPT), a privately funded nonprofit organization responsible for the operation and administration of Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site, today announced that President and Executive Director George W. McDaniel, Ph.D. would be stepping down on June 30.
“Drayton Hall has been my passion and purpose for more than 25 years,” said McDaniel, “and I can’t imagine a better or more fulfilling vocation. But the time has come to turn over leadership responsibilities so I can focus on family, research, writing and other projects. I thank the Drayton family, whose vision made all of this possible, and the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust board of trustees, our outstanding staff and the thousands of Friends and visitors who have supported us during my tenure.”
In this 34-second time-lapse video, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia constructs a log “field quarter” (a dwelling for enslaved field workers). It’s first constructed in a building to cut and fit all the pieces in a protected place during winter, then re-assembled in the field on a beautiful spring day in 2015. It’s now on the exact spot where the foundations for a house were uncovered through archaeology (if you look carefully to the horizon on the left, you’ll see the Visitor Center).
Montpelier is in the midst of reconstructing many of the lost buildings associated with the enslaved African community, using archaeological and documentary evidence assembled over the past decade. Their major project is the South Yard, six buildings next to the Madison’s mansion, which will be completed in the next few years, thanks to a generous gift from David Rubenstein.
This morning brought the first snow of the season. While schools closed and cars were slipping on the road in front my house, the mail arrived with a thump on my doorstep. Inside was Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, the book I worked on for the last few years with two dozen contributors. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but Rowman and Littlefield has increased its attention to graphic design and it really paid off. It’s a handsome book. But it’s even better inside!
Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is another step in a path being laid by many people for nearly 150 years. Although much has been accomplished at museums and historic sites to enhance and improve the interpretation of African American history and culture, we’ve also learned Continue reading →
As many of you know, I’m assembling an anthology on the interpretation of African American history and culture at historic sites and in history museums, expected to be published by Rowman and Littlefield later this year as part of the AASLH book series. To provide an overview of the field during the past twenty years, I’ve developed an eleven-page bibliography of published articles and books. Although not comprehensive nor definitive, it provides a gateway to the breadth and width of the work underway in the United States for inspiration and best practices, and suggests needs and opportunities in the field. Due to limited space, this bibliography will be reduced in the book so I wanted to provide it here for those who are interested in the expanded version.
This bibliography primarily focuses on theories and methods (the “how”) of interpreting African American history and culture at museums and historic sites, such as tours, exhibits, events, programs, videos, and websites. Related, but not part of this bibliography, are Continue reading →
Last week I visited the Exploratorium in its new home on Pier 15 in San Francisco. If you haven’t veen there, it’ll seem like a science center but you’ll quickly discover it’s really a place about learning, especially through direct experiences with art, tinkering, and phenomena (yep, that’s how they describe it). It’s an incredibly active place (almost to the point of overwhelming) that seems to effectively engage its visitors, so I continually watch to see if any of their exhibits or ideas can be applied to historic sites or history museums. During my latest visit, I found two exhibits that with a mild tweak could be really be innovative for interpreting history.
Every day Drayton Hall offers “Connections,” a 45-minute program that traces the story of Africans from Africa to the new world and into the 20th century.
If you’ve been involved with the planning, development, presentation, or evaluation of an outstanding exhibit, program, or project interpretation of African American history and culture at a museum or historic site in the last five years, consider sharing it as a case study for a book I’m editing for Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. This book will be part of a series on the interpretation of various topics published by the American Association for State and Local History that are slated for release later this year. The first part of the book will be a wide-ranging anthology of articles written by experts and scholars from a variety of perspectives, including Bernard Powers, Matthew Pinsker, Kristin Gallas, James DeWolf Perry, George McDaniel, Amanda Seymour, Donna Graves, Julia Rose, and Lila Teresa Church with a foreword written by Lonnie Bunch. If you know any of these people, you know it’ll be an interesting and thought-provoking book.
I need help with the second half of the book: a set of 12-16 case studies of exemplary programs that can be adapted by others. Are you aware of any Continue reading →