Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums
By Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small. Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002; 300 pp., illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index; cloth $45.00.
Representations of Slavery is a comprehensive and stark assessment of plantation museums in the southern United States. During 1996 to 2001 the authors and their graduate students visited 122 plantation museums in Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana. The authors also conducted research at sites in five other states: Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. All of the museums studied were plantations during the period of slavery.
The study condemns 83 percent of the plantation museums as historic sites that avoid or trivialize issues of slavery, oppression, and racism as legitimate parts of their historical narratives. By doing so, these museums, the authors believe, perpetuate the notion that a legitimate national history is possible without grappling with the presence and experience of people of color. They bluntly state their case at the outset—
Our primary arguments in this book are that most of the sites we have explored in depth tell a story of American history that centers around whites, males, and elites, and that these sites erase or minimize the presence, labor, and lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans. We argue that these sites work to construct and maintain public white (male-dominated) racial identities that both articulate with and bolster a sense of (white) pride in a partial history of freedom, democracy, and hard work. In this story, slavery and African Americans are presented as almost incidental to the growth of the South and, by extension, the United States.
A second point is that in "most cases" the museums they studied "confine to oblivion, the system of slavery and the presence of those enslaved." Finally, that "racialization processes work in various locations, linked by shared and often overlapping ideologies and representations, to produce and reproduce racialized inequality and oppression."
Before beginning their analysis, the authors redefine identifiers they see as most appropriate and sensitive when referring to slave owners and slaves. In their terminology, slave masters are master enslavers and slaves are enslaved Africans. Their reasoning relates to the traditional way these terms have been perceived over time. Within the field of race studies, they and colleagues such as Michael Banton, Robert Miles, Bell Hooks, and Leon Higginbotham, all contend that in order to understand the damage done by such racialized traditional terms, we must "remove language that continues to mask systems of domination." Many of the sites in this study are dedicated to the founding fathers; throughout the book the authors remind the reader that the founding fathers may have been great leaders but they were also enslavers.
Eichstadt and Small acknowledge the responsibility and power museums have in teaching us about the past, and the responsibility we have as a society to understand the master narrative of our nation. But they contend that too many museums are wrapped up in platitudes that are dedicated to telling a story that supports the glory of the United States: the significance of democracy; the importance of civility, gentility, and hospitality; and the white forebears who made it all possible.
The authors argue that in the scenarios they observed, the enslaved are only important to the extent that they perpetuate the legacy of "the great white men" who are presented as the true heroes of the growing republic. Whether in Virginia, Georgia, or Louisiana, enslaved Africans and African Americans who are mentioned at all are described as the "faithful old retainers," "loyal slaves," or "grateful servants" who were important because they assist in memorializing the "true" heroes.
Does the fact that George Washington, Patrick Henry, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and their contemporaries were "master enslavers" negate the significance of what they contributed to the evolution of the republic? The authors would probably answer, "No." However, the appropriate balance that both condemns and praises our founding fathers has not been reached. Although most museums are not consciously avoiding the issue, they are on the front lines dealing with visitors who are neither traditional students nor captive audiences. Visitors are consumers who in most cases have paid a price for their continuing education (and want to enjoy the time they spend as well). This reality forces many institutions into a position of relying on traditional stories and methods of programming, and exhibiting their histories with the sensibilities of their primary audiences in mind. They institute programming that does not offend, accost, argue, shame, or otherwise drive paying visitors away. Their very existence depends on their ability to bring more visitors through their doors.(1)
Is it possible for museums, whether mainstream or culturally specific, to effectively balance a credible telling of the African and African-American story during the period of enslavement in the United States and remain financially solvent? Can they be legitimate stewards of the history they purport to teach about the development of America? These are questions the authors do not address in any comprehensive way but simply state, we must try.
Would an increasing number of visitors go to museums if they were told a story that was more in keeping with the harsh, stern, brutal, and oppressive system of servitude that pervaded the South? There is little evidence to support that notion, even if we assume more minorities would visit museums that present such a history.
A survey by Randi Korn and Associates presents some useful information about visitor interest in the content of stories told at these kind of sites. Despite results indicating that most visitors express a low interest in African-American history, further analysis suggests that African Americans as well as whites prefer stories that are more balanced. Korn asserts, "in general, respondents were less interested in African American history compared to other subjects."(2) However, Korn acknowledges the importance of communication, engaging presentation methods, and interactivity when dealing with such controversial subjects. But she stops short of saying that a more comprehensive African-American narrative at the sites tested would enhance visitation.
Eichstedt and Small look at museums through the narrow lens of academe. They ignore (or minimize) the primary mission and reality of most museums, especially given the current economic climate: survival. While their analysis is comprehensive, credible, and factual, they found no museums that lived up to their standards, which may indicate more than neglect, trivialization, or racism. Rather, it may indicate the authors' lack of understanding or refusal to acknowledge what is feasible at plantation museums.
There are formidable realities that Eichstadt and Small's study does not consider: paying customers who will walk away if they are confronted with topics that they do not want to see, dwindling resources, and questionable research (though this should be less the case given the voluminous body of work just in the last decade). In addition, gun-shy administrators who are afraid of offending their customers and who have not yet changed their definition of success to include the type of probing, pricking, and compelling programs that full inclusion obviates, perpetuate the interpretive practices condemned in this book. Plantation museums must continue to push the envelope in the history they present about the lives of enslaved Africans, but the practical realities they face will continue (despite the admonitions of Eichstadt and Small) to hamstring a fuller presentation of the good, the bad, and the ugly.(3)
1. The work of Diane Swann-Wright at Monticello (Virginia) and Dorothy Redford at Somerset Place (North Carolina) are two such examples of plantation museums that constantly push the envelope and refuse to be satisfied with traditional narratives. The experience of enslaved Africans and African Americans is a story they strive to include consistently at their sites.
2. Randi Korn and Associates, Inc., Charleston Report (2001), 2. Prepared for the Historic Charleston Foundation, Drayton Hall, and the Gibbes Museum of Art, this study was designed to provide the three clients with information about visitors to Charleston, South Carolina, in general and visitors to the three respective institutions in particular. Between February 2000 and March 2001, Korn interviewed 1,859 respondents.
3. Gordon S. Wood's article, "Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves," New York Times, December 14, 2003, offers a case in point relating to current scholarship and discussions on the centrality of slavery to understanding the motives of the founding fathers.