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 humanize 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.

NMAAHC- What I’ve Been Waiting For!

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When Phyllis asked which museum we were most excited to explore, I knew that my answer was the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH). I’ve heard such great reviews from those lucky enough to get their hands on the museum’s coveted tickets. As we waited outside, the museum didn’t appear to be very large. It wasn’t until we went inside, huddled in the elevator, and began ascending into the history galleries that I grasped the true depth of the museum.

I was so glad that we were able to enter the museum early- moving freely through the intimate history galleries was really important to me. It allowed me to move at my own pace, ensuring that I could see all the objects that were important to me.

My largest takeaway from the museum was how our institutions can ultimately shape our world. The objects selections that curators make and how information about those objects is presented to the public can make for a wide range of institutional biases. Many museums, especially in DC, are focused on the founding fathers. DC landmarks and attitudes glorify our founding fathers and their ideals, but NMAACH makes an important distinction: our fight for independence was glorious, but hypocritical, since our country concurrently denied that same freedom to slaves.

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One of the most striking images in the museum, for me, is pictured above. The words of the Declaration of Independence are hung on for the wall for all to see. Below it, the struggles and accomplishments of enslaved people are discussed. This is truly the “Paradox of Liberty,” as evident in the museum’s exhibit text. While our textbooks glorify men like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, African-Americans are often pushed to the perimeter. For decades, the American experience and our country’s history textbooks are informed by the accomplishments of white men. NMAACH fills in the blanks, highlighting figures that sacrificed just as much (if not more) than our early presidents.

My favorite object in the entire museum was a book from Phyllis Wheatley, an African-American poet that wrote during the American Revolution. The 18th century is one of my favorite time periods to study and I believe Phyllis Wheatley to be a trailblazer. Many slaves, let alone female slaves, could not read or possess the ability to become a published author. She felt that her voice needed to be heard and her story wasn’t being told by 18th-century American society.

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2014.273.8, The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of M. Denise Dennis, in honor of the Dennis Family.

The visit to NMAACH drove home for me the responsibility that museums have to the public. Our museums have historically been colored by a white, European view of thinking. While beautiful and part of our unique story, this viewpoint should not be all-encompassing. It is important to document our country’s struggles, no matter how painful or uncomfortable, to ensure that our American story can be documented as fully as possible.