Interpretation of Slavery at Mt. Vernon

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“Lives Bound Together” exhibition at Mt. Vernon

I was really impressed today regarding Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery. I have never been to this museum, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Some historic sites, especially those that glorify Founding Fathers, often shy away from difficult topics like slavery. I was pleasantly surprised to see the “Lives Bound Together” exhibition. Slavery wasn’t just delegated to a small area in an exhibition, but was the main focus of the entire (large) exhibition.

I enjoyed listening to the Curator as she described the thought process behind the exhibition and how certain objects were selected. I particularly felt it was interesting that many of the same objects in the room with the Washington’s dining table were re-purposed from previous permanent exhibitions, but were interpreted differently under the framework of slavery. I also appreciated the choice to┬áhumanize the enslaved people that lived at Mt. Vernon. The choice to display their names on the front door, on a banner throughout the exhibit, and with several silhouettes brought slavery out of an abstract concept.

But beyond Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery in the form of exhibitions, I thought they were particularly successful in utilizing character interpreters. The man who represented Christopher Sheels seemed to have such an eloquent way of describing how he interacts with kids and adults to help them better understand how enslaved people lived on the estate. He said that in order to get his message across he needed to tell the truth, with humility, and with grace. It seemed like a great strategy to utilize, even with tough visitors that could be emotional or downright combative.

Overall, I was not expecting Mt. Vernon to have such a handle on the interpretation of slavery. I was pleased to hear that the narrative of slavery was woven into every tour, even those that didn’t specifically focus on the activities of enslaved people. Staff said that they have come a long way in terms of how they discuss slavery and still have room for improvement. From what I can see, Mt. Vernon seems to be on the right track.

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Text Labels: Necessary?

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The cutest panda there ever was!

Today we began at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Although I’m pretty local to DC, I actually have never been to the Zoo before! Prior to visiting, I was unsure about the Zoo’s interpretation methods. Although the Zoo does provide interpretation panels and texts, the staff noted that not all visitors utilize this tool. When visiting, I was distracted by the animals, especially the pandas. It seemed like visitors would have a similar experience.

However, what I found to be most useful was our group’s interaction with one of the Giant Panda keepers. I am sure that the keeper provided details that were mentioned in the text panels throughout the Panda House. However, it was easier to pay attention to the information while still keeping an eye on the pandas. During our session with Zoo staff, we were asked how the Zoo could best present information and stories to visitors. Our group suggested a few different approaches: through the use of volunteers, the potential development of apps, or multimedia approaches. In my mind, the use of volunteers or keepers was the most effective. Humans can’t resist cuddly animals. They are more willing to listen to information from staff or volunteers since they can view the animals at the same time.

I’m definitely a “text heavy” person, so this was a new experience for me. As the staff members put it, working in a zoo presents a unique set of challenges. It seems unsurprising that different interpretation methods would work better in a zoo setting.

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Entrance to the Hillwood Museum Mansion

At Hillwood Museum, I was also drawn to their interpretation methods. The museum attempts to interpret the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. As is the case for many historic homes, labeling is scarce in the mansion. Other interpretation tools, including an audio guide and a paper guide, were provided to us. As such, I didn’t feel that these tools were effective or allowed me to get an interesting grasp on Marjorie or the history of the home. Walking through the home seemed impersonal, especially amongst the ropped-off rooms.

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Japanese-style Gardens at Hillwood Museum

Instead, I felt more comfortable outside of the home. I really enjoyed the gardens, the pet cemetery, and the Japanese fountains. I thought that the grounds and the Dacha exhibit were more accessible to visitors and provided much-needed interpretation. Unlike the Zoo, I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to a staff member provide information.

At the end of the day, I thought that the Zoo could get away with less text interpretation since the volunteers and staff were so effective. At Hillwood, I would recommend investing in some sort of text interpretive panels or consider making more rooms in the mansion accessible.