The visitor’s experience

So, when visiting an historical site with a slave past, what is it that you want to see represented? Do you want to see the domestic slaves working in the house with field slaves out on the grounds? Do you want to see slave interactions between other slaves and their white owners? Do you want to see what the living conditions are like? Or do you want an exhibit that shows how the transatlantic slave trade made the slave population in that area what it was at the time?

What can I possibly do to make your experience with the uncomfortable fact of slavery better? Would it be better if I focused on who the slave was as a person? Or do you want a total overview?

I ask these questions because I am preparing to create a presentation about slave interpretation for a conference next year that I am hoping to present at. I want to meet the expectations of the visitor but I also want them to leave with something memorable for the good, and not just that slaves had it bad. I am not sure how to word that or even make it work because you can’t change a person’s perception. Example: Saturday as I am working in the garden, an older white gentlemen comes up to me and the other African American interpreter and asks us what we’re cooking? No fire is lit, we aren’t in the kitchen, she’s sewing and I’m hacking up weeds with a hoe and we get asked what we’re cooking? So glad sir that you know that the cooking on the plantation would have been done by a slave but, please before you make any statements, ask about what we’re doing right now and then ask us about our other responsibilities.

My state of shock worked itself off in the garden but it did get me to think about how we can change the visitor experience without infringing on their rights to think what they like. I just hope that I can make an impact on what people think when they think about the enslaved. So what do you want to see? Post your thoughts and suggestions.

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2 Responses

  1. Le Loup says:

    To be honest I think seeing African slave interpretation would make me feel very uncomfortable.

  2. Bundle Brent says:

    Hi there – I followed your comment on my blog (mongooseofmystery) and I'm delighted to find a blog on this topic!

    I'm an archaeologist and my main area of study is actually African-American life in the Chesapeake. I know a lot of historic sites struggle with this issue – some people are offended or made uncomfortable when they see people re-enacting enslaved life, others are offended when it is omitted. It seems like it must be hard to find the right balance, to get folks to put aside whatever visceral response they have and engage with the program.

    Since African and African-American labor was so critically important in the Americas for nearly 300 years (longer in some places), I find it ridiculous to have a historic site, especially a plantation, that doesn't address slavery in a MAJOR way. Leaving it out of the living history interpretation is dishonest, effectively ignoring the very thing that made plantations possible in the first place.

    I think it's OK for us to feel uncomfortable about history, and even to get angry about it. If we don't, then we're either not paying attention or we're not getting the whole story.

    I also think it's important to address free African-Americans, if that's relevant to the site's past, and to include any information about post-Emancipation African-American life, if it's possible to do so at the specific historic site.

    I definitely get what you're saying about how difficult it is to address the good & bad of enslaved life – it's tough to do. I've never actually been somewhere where they had interpreters performing the jobs historically done by enslaved labor, but lots of places offer some info about slave life – unfortunately, it always seems a little "tacked on" to the overall story, which is usually about wealthy & prominent white men.

    So, to finally answer your question, I'd like to see more African-American voices represented in our re-creations of the past, and that includes costumed interpretations of enslaved life, even if it makes some visitors uncomfortable at first. About the most a person can expect at most historic sites is an offhand, "and all this work would have been done by slaves," which leaves us with the impression that there was this nameless, faceless group of people who worked all the time and did nothing else, and that we can pretty much ignore the huge African-American contribution to the site's past, and to history in general.

    Is there any information in archival materials about particular individuals or families? Mount Vernon includes details about the specific individuals who worked in different areas of the plantation, and discusses their lives outside of work (abroad marriages, Saturday markets, religion, family life, etc). Sometimes highlighting these other activities seems to get across that while slavery was seriously awful, people coped with it in a variety of ways, and that there was good in their lives in spite of the fact of slavery.

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