Tag Archives: James Madison’s Montpelier

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 Continue reading

Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?

Engaging_ProgramsEducators and interpreters are increasingly expected to engage the community to build support, attract audiences, and confront contemporary issues. So how do you get started? What does an effective community engagement project look like? How do you maintain it?

On Thursday, September 7, 11:00 am – 12:15 pm at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Austin, I’ll be moderating a session that will bring together three projects—Haymarket Project in Boston, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and El Pueblo History Museum in Colorado—to discover how they successfully engaged three different audiences in the local community—immigrants, African American descendants, and Latina teenage girls.  Joining me will be Ken Turino (Historic New England), Christian Cotz (James Madison’s Montpelier), and Dawn DiPrince (History Colorado).  Based on their experiences and with contributions from the audience, we will Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Researching the Interpretation of Slavery in Louisiana

Research Trip 2015 MapJames Madison’s Montpelier is in the midst of expanding its interpretation of slavery thanks to a generous gift from David Rubenstein.  To explore potential interpretive techniques and content that could be adopted, we conducted a three-day research trip to visit a wide range of sites in Louisiana. Staff had visited most of the sites in Virginia, and so we sought a location that most of us had not visited but had a large concentration of historic sites that interpreted African American history before emancipation. Because the experience helped us question assumptions, think more deeply about outcomes, and expand our catalog of ideas, I’m sharing our itinerary with you to encourage you to visit. Our research trip started with two days to make a big loop through Baton Rouge and New Iberia to visit several historic sites and finished with a day in New Orleans. In future blog posts, I hope to discuss some of the sites in more detail.

Day 1: Whitney Plantation, Laura Plantation, and Oak Alley.  Our initial plans also included Evergreen Plantation but the timing didn’t work out, even though these sites are within ten miles of each other.

Day 2: West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen (near Baton Rouge) and Continue reading

Reconstructing a Lost “Field Quarter”

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.

A Handy Way to Keep Table Tents Neat

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At a recent board meeting of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that manages James Madison’s Montpelier, I discovered they had developed a nice device to keep table tents neat.  I often create table tents or nameplates on my computer, folding a letter-sized sheet in half.  Despite using cover stock to give them some heft, they still manage to sag and wilt, not only making them hard to read but creating a sad-looking appearance for a meeting.

Montpelier tapered a small block of wood to fit within the table tent, attaching a short brass screw at the back.  Using a small “super-strong” magnet, the table tent sticks to the screw on the block.  Everything looks sharp for the meeting and the blocks can be easily reused (and they never break, even if you drop them).  Another great idea from the carpenters at Montpelier.


News from Montpelier and Belle Grove in Virginia

Last Friday I was in Virginia and thought I’d share what’s been happening at James Madison’s Montpelier and Belle Grove, two historic sites that I’ve been associated with for more than a decade.  


The day started with a meeting of the Interiors and Interpretation Committee at James Madison’s Montpelier to see the most recently restored rooms at the mansion, advise them on the next phase of work, and to meet Kat Imhoff, the new president of the Montpelier Foundation.  The committee hasn’t met for a couple years so I was particularly anxious to see what’s been happening at this nationally significant site.  The drawing room, dining room, new library, and James Madison’s office are furnished (or nearly so) and with revisions to the tour, it’s a dramatically different visitor experience.  If you haven’t been there in a couple years, it’s well worth another visit.  I enjoy participating as a committee member because Montpelier gives me the unique privilege of staying overnight on site (not in the mansion, alas, but in a nicely updated house in the Constitutional Village).  Even better are the people I work with when I visit–passionate and enthusiastic colleagues who are among the best in their fields.  This meeting included Conny Graft, Betty Monkman, Gail Serfaty, David Mattern, and Robert Leath and to give you a glimpse of their fervor, one of the committee members brought an undiscovered Madison letter that descended through her family and we stayed up until midnight (at least that’s when I went to bed) to discuss and analyze it.  

In the evening, I stopped by Belle Grove in Middletown on the way home to congratulate Elizabeth McClung on her retirement.  Their board of trustees hosted a well deserved celebratory party with lots of speeches, food, and wine.  Elizabeth has served for 17 years at the helm of this historic site, making tremendous strides in preservation and interpretation to make it a major point of pride in the community.  She helped create the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, launched new research initiatives on African American and women’s history, acquired extremely important family portraits and adjacent land parcels, fought bloody preservation battles in the Shenandoah Valley, revised the website, authentically restored the parlor and dining room, and raised LOTS of money (those are just the things I’m aware of from my distant view!).  Her last major project was the rehabilitation of an early 20th century barn for educational activities and while funds still need to be raised for the exhibits, 4274 Design Workshop unveiled a new model of Belle Grove as it appeared in 1820.

It was an incredibly full and fun day visiting these two historic sites, and because I was mostly traveling the Virginia countryside, a great day of driving on a beautiful day as well.

Kat Imhoff named president of James Madison’s Montpelier

Kat Imhoff at James Madison’s Montpelier.

The Montpelier Foundation has appointed Katherine L. “Kat” Imhoff as president effective January 1, 2013.  The Foundation manages James Madison’s Montpelier, where Madison was born, developed his ideas for the Constitution, and retired after his presidency.  Imhoff returns to Virginia after a successful five-year tenure as State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Montana, where she led the organization’s Montana Legacy Project – the purchase of more than 300,000 acres for nearly $500 million – representing the largest conservation project ever undertaken by The Nature Conservancy.

“Montpelier is a place for making authentic, tangible connections with the past that can inspire us to build on James Madison’s legacy of constitutional self-government,” said Gregory May, Chairman of The Montpelier Foundation. “Kat Imhoff is a respected preservationist with demonstrated ability to generate support for visionary advances like those Montpelier now is prepared to undertake.”

Before she went to Montana, Imhoff was Continue reading

Montpelier Archaeologists Discover James Madison’s Threshing Machine

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The rich red clay at Montpelier, the Virginia home of the Father of the Constitution has given up more secrets: the remnants of James Madison’s barn and threshing machine, and evidence that Dolley’s son destroyed both in an attempt to remove the machine from Montpelier before the new owner took possession.

As archaeologists excavated the field slave quarters this summer, they found perplexing evidence they had to research and decipher. First, they found bits of iron that appeared to be pieces of machinery, which indicated that the building was used to house farming equipment. Then, in the soil layers below the iron pieces, they found a trench, which proved to be the outline of a 16-foot x 16-foot building. The trench also contained a set of postholes that held more iron pieces. “The iron and postholes in the trench tell us that the building was modified to allow a piece of machinery to be mounted inside the building,” said Dr. Matthew Reeves, Montpelier director of archaeology and landscape restoration.

More digging revealed bits of bone and ceramics, which indicate that Continue reading

HBR: To Engage Your Visitors, Keep it Simple

"To Keep Your Customers, Keep it Simple" by Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman (Harvard Business Review, May 2012)

The May 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review arrived a little early to my mailbox, but I couldn’t stop from sharing a great article on engaging customers in business world that can easily be translated to engaging visitors and building support for historic sites and museums.  In “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple,” Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman note the paradox of today’s promotional techniques:

Companies have ramped up their messaging, expecting that the more interaction and information they provide, the better the chances of holding on to these increasingly distracted and disloyal customers.  But for many consumers, the rising volume of marketing messages isn’t empowering–it’s overwhelming.  Rather than pulling customers into the fold, marketers are pushing them away with relentless and ill-conceived efforts to engage.

This conclusion is based on multiple surveys of more than 7,000 consumers which were then compared to interviews with 200 marketing executives representing 125 brands.  Their pointed out that what consumers what and what companies think consumers want didn’t correspond to each other, or in biz speak, it’s a Continue reading