Tag Archives: museums

Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center Merger

Rumors have circulated for the last several months that the Museum of the Confederacy was exploring a merger with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar. Today, the news broke that despite denying it initially, it is true.

In the initial rumors there was outrage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of Confederate Flaggers (which I refuse to discuss on this blog). In fact, some of my friends and acquaintances (who are not in either of those organizations) are dismayed. Still within this merger, it appears to me that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society is here to stay. It unclear at this moment, how the old museum space will be used (beyond the gift shop) and how many visitors may go to the Confederate Executive Mansion.

The Confederate Executive Mansion in the spring of 1865. Today, this building is surrounded by the Medical College of Virginia creating confusion for the Museum of the Confederacy’s visitors. Image in the Library of Congress’ collection.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have over the years been a member (and clearly remember not renewing for a while when there was a proposal to move the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw mansion from its original location) of the Museum of the Confederacy. I believe that the institution protects important documents and materials related to the wartime and post-war South through its gamble in creating a separate nation and the methods of remembering the Southern wartime experience. I know some talented folks over at the Museum. Yet, it is clear to me that they have been in a challenging situation with the Confederate Executive Mansion and its neighboring 1970s building now dwarfed by the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia.

The Museum of the Confederacy has had its fair share of interpretive challenges since 1896. Certainly for many decades the issue of slavery and its importance to the Confederate government and many of its white residents was ignored. The impact of slavery on and the notion of freedom among the millions of enslaved people living in the wartime south were also ignored. The 1990s saw the beginnings of changes to the familiar Lost Cause tropes and exploration of race and gender and the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox even explores the memory of the Confederacy and the flags.

Yet, for those who are so outraged, failing to support the Confederate Memorial Literary Society could contribute to the disintegration of the very artifacts and documents you profess to want people to have access to. There has to be a balance between the old line supporters of the Museum and new methods to engage the public. I hope that this will be successful; but, I am going to take a wait-and-see approach instead of throwing my hands up in protest or rolling out a red carpet too early. It remains to be seen if the larger public will throw in their support.

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About “Ask A Slave”

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.

As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.

One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.

Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”

Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”

Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”

Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”

I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.

My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).

I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”

Daughter: “Oh.”

She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”

I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”

The father and daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”

Family: “Oh.”

Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.

This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.

At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.

All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:

“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]?  I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”

Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:

  1. Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
  2. What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
  3. What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
  4. What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
  5. Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
  6. Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
  7. When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
  8. Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
  9. What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
  10. What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
  11. What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?

These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.

Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.

I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.

Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.

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Visiting Biltmore

I was fortunate to go visit Biltmore Estate, home of George and Edith Vanderbilt and their daughter, Cornelia. The house was completed in 1895 and has 250 rooms! Biltmore has an amazing collection of the original Vanderbilt furnishings and conservators and curators have worked extensively on recreating the house’s original draperies, upholstery, and wallpapers. Probably my favorite item in the house (if I were forced to only pick one) is The Chariot of Aurora painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Pellegrini in the 1720s, which was originally in Pisani Palace in Venice.

Biltmore, this particular morning there was some car show out front.

In the second floor living hall (a space in the Vanderbilts’ day where the family and guests could mingle before meals or read and chat), there was an exhibition regarding the work of curators, conservators, and contractors in preserving and interpreting the rooms within the mansion. Museums generally struggle with institutional history so this was a refreshing moment as visitors are usually interested in how we know what we know about décor in historic homes. One of the things that stuck out in my mind is that in restoring the Louis XV Room, conservators spent about 21,000 hours working on artifacts and with the architecture of the room itself in cleaning, repairing small items that had been cracked, or items that needed to be polished. There were places within the exhibit that highlighted Biltmore’s staff working directly with companies as far away as France who had originally produced wallpapers back in the 1890s for George Vanderbilt. Equally interesting was the restoration of a chair, whose original upholstery was found, reproduced, and due to the loss of original stuffing, the new conservation-friendly padding was illustrated.

Another successful exhibition I thought was located in the basement which used photographs to illustrate the construction of the house. Photos showed Vanderbilt and the architect, Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted but emphasized that they were NOT the builders of Biltmore. In fact, this is an area that often sends a chill down my spine on tours when someone says “Such-and-such famous person built said-grand-mansion.” The photos show the workmen, black and white, who built the mansion and gardens. My favorite image showed a youngster and a group of men and the men’s lunch pails.

There was a really well done exhibit “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” highlighting the schools opened by George Vanderbilt in Asheville for elementary age children at one, crafts in another for adults, and a school teaching domestic service to black women. Numerous fine items owned by the Vanderbilts were exhibited too from jewelry to luggage and their luck in avoiding boarding R.M.S. Titanic (but not so lucky for a servant).

Of course, I would be interested in the work of the servants at Biltmore. The house’s formal rooms were constructed in a manner so as to really conceal the work of servants from view of the guests and the Vanderbilts. However, without these folks, there is no way the house could have been a jewel of entertainment. So I will report on the only specialty tour taken in the visit: The Butler’s Tour.

This call button was located on a porch at Biltmore. If pressed, it would ring to the butler’s pantry. I wanted to know, who answered the bell?

First, in the regular, self-guided tour, you go down into the basement where you see four pantries, two walk-in refrigerators, servants’ bedrooms, pastry kitchen, rotisserie kitchen, the main kitchen, a kitchen pantry, the servants’ dining room (where there was a special maid just for the servants), a storage room converted to an organ motor room, work room, and three laundry spaces! A true catacomb of work that may remind my readers of scenes from PBS shows like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, except in this case on an American nouveau riche scale. I was quite curious about the refrigeration system which I learned about thanks to the helpful docent in the main kitchen. She also shared that in a space not seen on this or the Butler’s Tour was an area where ice blocks were created and the system kept the fridges at 40 degrees.

On the butler’s tour, there was a fair amount of discussion of Emily King, the British housekeeper from 1897-1914. King possessed a suite consisting of a bedroom, private bath, and closet, illustrating her role as the highest-ranked servant. In contrast, you’ll find the single bedrooms in the basement. There were a whole host of smaller spaces than the grand rooms where a flurry of activity occurred such as in the butler’s pantry, sewing room, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s closet, among others.

So what about this tour? First, I had an issue with the name of the tour. After 45 minutes and then standing last in the butler’s pantry I asked “What was the butler’s name?” The response: “I don’t know.” I realize that the staff may not have found this information (yet) in family papers, but I felt like if they don’t know the butler’s name then perhaps the tour should be renamed “Emily King’s Biltmore.” It wouldn’t necessarily change what was discussed, but I didn’t learn what the butler did (now, yes *I* know what a butler does but many people who visit may not) or who he was.

Equally disappointing was in the course of the tour there was no discussion of the number of servants employed as well as differences in ethnicity, gender, ages, and marital status (if any). In my estimation a well-rounded tour is one where the visitor can learn something about the lives and work of servants. I found myself curious as to who was Mr. Vanderbilt’s valet? Who was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s personal maid? I asked someone (not on this tour) who said the maid may have been French but she didn’t know the answer as she was in the maintenance department. That lady was very nice who informed me about the cleaning of the rooms by the modern staff but I had hoped the butler’s tour would answer questions such as these.

Our tour guide knew a lot about the technology of the house and did faithfully describe that the Vanderbilts’ personal servants would have traveled with them in their numerous transatlantic trips and that the sewing room was an area for mending the finer clothing of the Vanderbilts or any of their guests. It was cool to see how bright early electricity was (Biltmore always had electricity), to see a bathroom, and hear about the call system.

I really did enjoy Biltmore despite my critiques of the tour. I think they have some amazing rooms to tell the stories of those who owned Biltmore and those worked there. And don’t miss the gardens and the winery for a little relaxation.

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